By Catherine Tsounis
Santa Claus is not from the North Pole. He is based on Nicholas, the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Myra, Lycia. This Greek/Byzantine city today is called Demre, in the Antalya province of Turkey.
I had the unique opportunity of visiting Russia in late September through early October 2015, seeing the Byzantine Orthodox civilization of the North. I visited sites of Byzantine civilization in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novgorod, the birthplace of Russian Orthodox Christianity. At Christmas 2015, there is a worldwide travel alert to Russia for a possible risk of travel due to increased terrorist threat (November 23, 2015).1 I managed to get out of Russia in safety.
A whopping 72% of the Russian adult population identified themselves as Orthodox Christians in 2008.2 Every Greek family has a member or friend called Nick. Russian iconography that stems back to the 10th century gave me a new perception of this ethnically Greek saint.
My search for St. Nicholas began at St. Basil’s Cathedral (Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat) Museum in Red Square, Moscow. St. Nicholas of Velikoretskoye was in an illuminated case. It is a 16th century tempera on wood icon It shows St. Nicholas with scenes of his life. In 1555 the icon was brought from Vyatka to Moscow. The name Velikoretsky means “of the big rivers”. St. Basils Cathedral is divided into ten inner churches. The southern church was consecrated in honor of the Velikoretsky St. Nicholas icon.
We did not have the time to visit St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral in St. Petersburg. It is associated with the Russian Navy and has two churches. The lower St. Nicholas church is located on the first floor. The main shrine has a 17th century Greek icon of St. Nicholas with a relic.8 The Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood has an 1890’s St. Nicholas the Wonder worker icon. Our main focus in St. Petersburg was the Hermitage, Peterhof Gardens and Catherine the Great’s Palace.
The Tretyakov Gallery has a St. Nicholas icon from the 12th-early 13th century, Tempera on Wood. This is the earliest surviving Russian icon. This is the Novgorod icon painting style, when Christianity was beginning. St. Nicholas of Zaraisk with scenes of his life is of the Rostov-Suzdal School of the late 13th-early 14th centuries. The only full length fresco of St. Nicholas with an open gospel, 1108-1113 A. D. is displayed in the Tretyakov Gallery.
On a visit to the “Decorated Icon Exhibit” at Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow, and jeweled St. Nicholas icon was exhibited at the Fine Arts Center. The Cathedral is the largest Orthodox Church in the world. There is a side chapel of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker with a prominent wall icon. “It is located in the south part of the gallery, for the country where St. Nicholas lived. Christianity came to Russia from the south, so the paintings in St. Nicholas’ side chapel illustrate the history of Christianity from the 3rd to the 9th centuries AD, before Russia’s’ conversion to it. It is here that one can see…..the theme of the Seven ecumenical Councils. St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra, an ardent defender of Orthodox Christian doctrines, took part in the first Ecumenical council. That’s why these subjects are to be found next to those concerned with his pious life and Christian virtues in his chapel.”
The art of the Moscow goldsmiths in the 16th century is displayed in the Armory, Moscow Kremlin Museum. The art of fine enameling with large uncut stones is displayed in icons. “The folding icon of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Worker…is silver, but its cover is gold decorated with gems and pearls.”
We did not have the time to visit St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral in St. Petersburg. It is associated with the Russian Navy and has two churches. The lower St. Nicholas church is located on the first floor. The main shrine has a 17th century Greek icon of St. Nicholas with a relic.5 The Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood has an 1890’s St. Nicholas the Wonder worker icon. Our main focus in St. Petersburg was the Hermitage, Peterho Gardens and Catherine the Great’s Palace.
An eight hour round trip from St. Petersburg took us to Novgorod, near the Swedish border. “The Novgorod State Museum’s collection of early Russian painting is unquestionably one of the finest in the world…Highlights from the earliest period (11th to 13th centuries) include ..St. Nicolas of Myra in Lycia (St. Nicholas of Lipno). These are prototypical images of the 14th and 15th centuries. ‘St. Nicholas of Lipno’ icon painted by Aleksa Petrov in 1294 is the earliest dated Russian icon. The fact that it bears the artists’s signature gives it unique historical significance.” 6 A circular icon of St. Nicholas that is dated 13th-14th century? possibly 16th century is the first icon that came into view when we entered the icon section.The site
Early Russian painting was one of the most significant achievement of this civilization. Byzantium with its capital in Constantinople had a unique splwendor of artistic Christian art that impressed the Slavic tribes. The early Russians believed that they “knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere on earth. We know not how to describe to you. The only thing we are certain about if that God makes His dwelling among the people there and their service is better than in any other country. We can not forget the beauty.”7 The Russian icon for centuries has been striving to reflect the ideal beauty of the heavenly world. 8
Nicolas, Bishop of Myra, has always been the most admired saint, according to the book, “The Russian Icon” by the editorial Board of the Russian Orthodox Church. He prays for all Christians, helps people in misfortunes, protects travelers and quickly defends those to whom injustice has been made. His veneration in Early Russia was almost as great as that of Christ and Mary. Numerous churches were dedicated to St. Nicholas. A large quantity of icons were created in his memory. Russian proverbs sho a deep faith in his power.9 Our roots are in Greece, a country plundered by conquests. My 2015 Russian trip showed me that our Byzantine inheritance lived on after the fall of Constantinople with, as the next generation of my family says, “with the Greeks of the North”.
“Cathedral Of Christ The Savior (Ivan Fiodorov Printing Company: Russia, 2005), pp. 25-9.
V.S. Goncharenko and V.I. Narozhnaya, “THE ARMORY: A guide” (Red Square Publishers:Moscow, 2012), PP.36-9.
N, Grinev, “NOVGOROD THE GREAT” (Ivan Fiodorov Art Publishers: St. Petersburg,2004), pp. 48-50.
Editorial Board of the Russian Orthodox Church, “Russian Icon” (P-2 Art Publishers: St. Petersburg,, 2011) p. 1,