Monthly Archives: December 2012

Saint Nicholas

Today is the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, (270-343) who evolved, through the centuries, into Santa Claus, because of his legendary roles as a protector of children and secret gift-giver. This was quite an evolution, in more ways than one! Nicholas is known alternatively as Nicholas of Myra, as he served as Bishop of that southern Turkish city (now called Demre) for much of his life, and Nicholas of Bari, as his relics were removed to southern Italy in the eleventh century. The Italians who confiscated the relics of the revered Saint claimed that were acting in the name of “security”, as Myra was increasingly vulnerable to Muslim attacks, but one could certainly ascertain that it was a case of simple theft. There are many stories associated with Nicholas’s holy works, so many that he is also referred to as Nicholas “the wonder-worker”, but the most popular relates a rather dark tale in which Nicholas visited an inn during a regional famine, and quickly discerned that the innkeeper had chopped up three boys and encased them in brine to sell them as pickled pork.  Nicholas brought the innocents back to life, and evolved into the savior of children who found themselves “in a pickle”.

Nicholas of Bari Stowe Breviary BL

Nicholas BM Dutch

Nicholas BM Flemish

British Library MS Stowe 12, “The Stowe Breviary”, 1322-25; Dutch woodcut print, 1480-1490, and hand-colored engraving from a Flemish prayer-book by the “Monogrammist M”, 1500-1525, both British Museum.

Images of Nicholas with the resuscitated boys (in their pickle barrel) can be found in all manner of religious texts from the medieval and early modern eras, as illustrated by those above, and were also the single focus of a succession of paintings and prints from the Renaissance and after. When Nicholas is not in the company of the boys, he is often pictured with the young women whom he saved from lives of prostitution by secretly gifting their father with gold for their dowries, another work of wonder that solidified his connection with the young (and vulnerable).

Nicholas Met Boys

Nicholas Met Dowry

Two altarpiece panels representing the holy deeds of Saint Nicholas by Bicci di Lorenzo, 1433-35:  Saint Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths and Saint Nicholas Providing Dowries, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The religious history of Saint Nicholas is pretty easy to reconstruct, but when hagiography meets folklore it gets a bit more confusing. One thing is certain: the transformation of the saint into the jolly dispenser of gifts is much more a phenomenon of western Christian culture than it is of the Orthodox Church, which still recognizes Saint Basil of Caesarea as the benevolent gift-giver (on his feast day of January 1).  The other factor that seems pretty clear is the role of the Reformation. The modern Santa Claus seems to be an amalgamation of the Dutch and Flemish Sinterklaas, the English “Father Christmas” and a secularized Saint Nicholas. While the Dutch Sinterklaas still arrives on the eve of St. Nicholas, wearing a Bishop’s hat and bearing a staff, the Protestant prohibition of his veneration gradually transformed him into a secular figure. Across the English Channel, a similarly-dressed (and aged), “Father Christmas” reemerges only after the Reformation and Revolution, when the Restoration ushers in a return to the “merry old England” of memory. And when these figures cross the Atlantic, the melting pot of American culture (and Coca Cola) gradually transforms them into our very own Santa Claus.

Nicholas Print 1604p

Nicholas Sinterklaas

Nicholas Father Christmas 1890 Vand Ap

Engraving of Saint Nicholas by Antonius Wierix, 1604, British Museum; Sinterklaas celebration in Amsterdam, 2011, and a Father Christmas card, c. 1890, Victoria & Albert Museum.


Selling the Psalms

There’s been a lot of discussion here in the Boston area over the last week or so about the decision of the Old South Church to sell one of their copies of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book to be printed in North America.  There are only eleven copies of this 1640 hymnal; each is precious (and worth about 10 million dollars, at the very least), and the Old South Church has two:  hence the decision to sell one to support its mission. I am certain that it was not an easy decision; deaccessioning an institutional legacy never is.  I’ve been on several boards of venerable institutions here in Salem which had to undertake similar considerations, and it was painful:  how do you honor the past while meet the demands of the present?

Bay Psalm Book LCp

The Library of Congress copy of the Bay Psalm Book (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1640), more formally known The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre. Whereunto is prefixed a discourse declaring not only the lawfullness, but also the necessity of the heavenly Ordinance of singing Scripture Psalmes in the Churches of God.

Everything about the Bay Psalm Book was imported:  paper, press, printer. The Puritans had brought several books of psalms with them, but their quest for the true word of God was essential and ongoing. The connection between printing and the Reformation was almost as well-known then as it is now, so the desire to have a press here in the New World must have been strong. The man with the plan was the Reverend Jose Glover, an English Puritan minister and shareholder in the Massachusetts Bay Company, who financed the purchase of the press (most likely Dutch, as was the type), the paper (most likely French), and the hiring of a “printer” named Stephen Daye in London. Glover died on the voyage to the New World, but his printer set up a press in Cambridge upon his arrival (with the aid of Glover’s widow, Elizabeth, who later married the first president of Harvard College, Stephen Dunster). There’s a lot of speculation about Daye; he was not a member of the Stationers’ Company, the printers’ and booksellers’ guild in London, rather he seems to have been trained as a locksmith and was barely literate. Nevertheless he is recognized as America’s first printer.

Bay Psalm Printing Press Stephen Daye

Bay Psalm First Printer restaurant

Daye’s Cambridge Press, Cambridge Historical Society; the First Printer restaurant at 15 Dunster Street, Cambridge, the site of Daye’s press.

The Bay Psalm Book went through several editions and remained in print through the seventeenth century. Even before the American Revolution, it was recognized as a foundational American text and included in the Prince Collection, the 2000 + rare texts collected by the Reverend Thomas Prince, the Pastor of the Old South Church in the 1740s and 1750s. These texts were stored in the steeple of the Church when it was transformed into a stable by the British during the Revolution (as I wrote about in an earlier post, the British stole Bradford’s Plymouth Plantation from the Church at this time but apparently felt the Bay Psalm Book was less valuable). In the later nineteenth century, the Church deposited the Prince Collection in the Boston Public Library for safekeeping. Of its two copies of the Bay Psalm Book, only one belongs to the Prince Collection so I assume that it’s the other that will go on the market, for the first time since 1947. All of the other 1640 copies (including one that was owned by Salem’s Federal-era chronicler, the Reverend William Bentley) are owned by institutions (you can see a great census here), so this is a rare opportunity for an individual to scoop one up.

Bay Psalm book title

Bay Psalm Book Singing Morgan

Title page of the Bay Psalm Book; Monks singing psalms in an earlier age: Pierpont Morgan Library MS M.193 fol. 277v (French, 13th century).


First Snow

On Saturday we had our first snow here in Salem; by Sunday it was gone.  I was very happy to see it and hope to see more:  last year, we had no snow in the winter, not a flake. There was the Halloween storm on my birthday (while a month or so ago my birthday fell on Superstorm Sandy, or vice-versa: what is the cosmos trying to tell me?)  So this year, I”d like a white winter:  not the huge, towering snowbanks of winters past, but just a little snow on the ground. Here are a few photographs of my garden and downtown, with barely a whisper on the ground.

First Snow 019

First Snow 011

First Snow 014

As you can see, where there was no grass, there was no snow. Not much of a display for New England, but I’m a little desperate as it has been a while. When I feel like waxing rhapsodic about snowflakes, I always conjure up the charming images from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), but I think I’ve already done that once or twice on this blog.  So instead, I want to focus on another man, several centuries later, who was similarly obsessed with snowflakes:  Wilson Alwyn Bentley (1865-1931), a pioneer in photomicrography. Bentley was a self-taught farmer from Jericho, Vermont who developed a process by which snowflakes could be photographed before they melted; he captured over 5000 images, demonstrating (like Hooke before him) that no two snowflakes were alike. Bentley was so taken with the singular, fleeting beauty of snow crystals, that he strove to capture them forever, on film, and first did so in 1885. Just after his death, about half of his images were published in a book entitled Snow Crystals (1931) which was republished by Dover in 1962. You can also see many his images at sites maintained by the University of Wisconsin and the Jericho Historical Society, as well as a few other places. Apart from their scientific and photographic value, Bentley’s images are just simply beautiful. Washington photographer Theodor Horydczak was inspired by Bentley to create his own grouped snowflake images, but I think I prefer the singular sensations.

First Snow Bentley Camera

First Snow Bentley 1910

First Snow Wilson Alwyn Bentley 1910

First Snow LC

Wilson Alwyn Bentley with his special microscope/camera in Vermont; lantern slides of two of his captured crystals, c. 1910, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Theodor Horydczak photograph, 1920, Library of Congress.


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