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St Nicholas is the most widely revered saint in Orthodoxy. The Russians have a saying 'If anything happens to God, we have always got St Nicholas'. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (Kazhdan ed., 1991, Vol 2, p. 1469) his cult, which only became popular in the 9th century, gave him a prominence ‘second only to the Virgin’.
The supposed historical Nicholas was a bishop in the 4th century. According to tradition, he was present at the Council of Nicea where he attacked the heretic Arius so violently that fellow bishops had to restrain him. Some thought this behaviour was unsuitable but legend recounts that Christ and the Mother of God appeared to Nicholas that night in a dream, endorsing his conduct. This vision is referred to by the miniatures of Christ and the Mother of God often depicted on either side of the saint. The events from the life of St Nicholas, seen in biographical icons of the saint, amalgamate miracles from the lives of several historical and non-historical persons, most notably the 6th century St Nicholas of Sion.
In Russia St Nicholas, or Nikolai, is often depicted as a 'little Russian', a type found among the peasants: simple, wise, shy, kindly and deeply religious.
In 1087 the saint’s relics were removed from Myra in Palestine by Genoese merchants and brought to Bari in southern Italy where his shrine is today.
In icons he is traditionally depicted as a bishop wearing robes and a stole decorated with crosses. He blesses the onlooker with his right hand and holds the gospel in his left. The high-domed forehead, short curly beard, small mouth and large ears give him an easily recognisable and distinctive appearance. His feast is celebrated on 21st December.