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A BEACON OF LIGHT
‘Depictions of St Nicholas’ Trail
This trail has been created in conjunction with our ‘From St Nicholas to Santa Claus’ exhibition that displays and celebrates the incredibly wide array of icons of St Nicholas that the Cathedral has been gifted over the years.
The historical Nicholas was a fourth-century holy man who lived in Asia Minor: what is now modern-day Turkey. In October 2022, his tomb was discovered during excavations beneath a Byzantine church in the Turkish town of Demre, formerly Myra, where Nicholas was bishop.
Born in a maritime city, Nicholas is the patron saint of seafarers – making him a popular dedication for churches in medieval port towns such as Newcastle. Newcastle’s cathedral is the only one in England dedicated to the saint.
This self-led trail guides you to each of our depictions of St Nicholas, starting at the West Door and ending at the South Porch. Click on the images to view them in closer detail.
If you enjoy this trail, please consider making a one-off donation which will go towards the running and continued work of the Cathedral. Click here to donate.
1. Statue above the West Porch
Start at the West Door and look at the statues on the wooden screen behind you.
St Nicholas holds his crosier (bishop’s staff) and three gold bags of gold.
Nicholas’ parents died when he was young, leaving him a large inheritance. Across three nights, legend says that he secretly gifted a bag of gold each to three poor sisters. The number three plays an important part in many stories of St Nicholas, perhaps alluding to the Holy Trinity.
Some accounts have these bags fall into the girls’ stockings which are hung by the fire. This evolved into the tradition of children hanging stockings for gifts, either on Christmas Eve or the Eve of St Nicholas Day (5 December).
2. Window dedicated to Andrew Laing
Walk down the North Aisle, past the Crypt, and into St George’s Chapel.
St Nicholas is at the centre of the window dedicated to pioneering shipbuilder and engineer, Andrew Laing. As the patron of seafarers, this is an appropriate place for St Nicholas to appear.
Miniature figures of boy sailors kneel in attendance near the saint’s head, and he holds a detailed representation of a fully rigged Tudor warship. This is contrasted, at the base of the window, by the early 20th-century steamship S.S. Mauretania, the engine of which was Laing’s crowning achievement.
3. Window dedicated to Charles Parsons
This window is beside the one dedicated to Andrew Laing.
At the base of the window, a procession is conducted by a ‘boy bishop’. This references the relatively young age at which St Nicholas became Bishop of Myra. A medieval English tradition saw a child elected to serve as ‘bishop’ on the Eve of St Nicholas Day in churches and cathedrals throughout the country.
4. Caroline Townshend Window
This window can be found in the North Quire Aisle, across from the northern entrance to the Quire.
At the very top of the window is a miniature scene of St Nicholas in a boat with three sailors.
Several popular stories include Nicholas appearing to sailors who pray to him and saving their ship from a storm. In one version, he promptly disappears, but then the sailors meet the bishop when they finally come ashore. Because of his patronage, St Nicholas is often depicted rescuing boats and ships from stormy seas.
5. Banner of St Nicholas
You will see a red banner nestled in the corner as you enter the Eastern Chapels.
This banner is linked with Mothers Union, an international Christian membership movement supporting families and communities in need in the UK and worldwide since 1876.
Newcastle was the first Diocese after Winchester to adopt Mothers Union. The first President was Emily Wilberforce, wife of the first Bishop of Newcastle.
The saint cradles the Cathedral’s Lantern Tower in his hands. Our building was originally St Nicholas Church and was elevated to cathedral status in 1882, six years after the founding of Mothers Union.
6. The Reredos
The reredos is the name given to the screen behind the High Altar, located in the Quire.
In the 1880s, beautiful furnishings were commissioned to match St Nicholas’ newly elevated status. The reredos was carved by Ralph Hedley with figures by James Sherwood Westmacott.
The saint’s continued significance is reflected by the presence of his carved statue, standing in the company of Christ, the Northern Saints, the Apostles and the Virgin Mary. He holds a Bible, on top of which are the three bags of gold.
This photo, taken before the statue was added to the Reredos/High Altar Screen, was published in The Building News and Engineering Journal on 6 January 1888.
7. The Icon
Located in the Quire at the High Altar.
This icon of St Nicholas was created by Aidan Hart, who has been a professional iconographer for over 30 years. It was presented to the Cathedral in 2005 by former Head Verger, James Adams, in memory of his parents.
The figure of St Nicholas looks upwards to an image of Christ in Heaven. As Bishop of Myra, Nicholas was imprisoned for his faith under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, but freed by his successor Constantine I.
In 325, Nicholas is said to have attended the First Council of Nicaea, an assembly of religious delegates arranged by Constantine. This meeting defined many Christian Church beliefs, particularly relating to the Holy Trinity and the relationship between God and Jesus, which are still accepted today.
8. Wooden statue by the Quire entrance
Leave the Quire and look to your left, as you head into the Nave.
This Belgian statue was gifted to the Cathedral by Canon Jim Rosenthal, the founder of Britain’s St Nicholas Society.
It was purchased by Rosenthal from a former nun in the city of Sint-Niklaas in East Flanders. The carved figure is notable for its unusual ‘peace symbol’ hand gesture. The original hand, raised in blessing, was apparently stolen, and the new hand was created to fill the gap.
One of the most legendary stories connected to St Nicholas is that of three boys who were killed by a butcher during a famine and stored in a barrel of brine (preservative salt water). Nicholas saw through the butcher’s lies and found and resurrected the boys.
9. Limestone carving
This small carving is on your left as you approach the South Transept.
Nicholas is shown sailing on a voyage of pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Caught in a storm, a sailor falls from the mast to his death. According to legend, Nicholas prayed and the sailor was restored to life.
The scene is carved by artist John Tribe in Caen limestone and dedicated to friends of his, including Tyne dinghy sailors from the 1960s. It is on long-term loan from the artist and has been on display since the Cathedral’s Patronal Festival in 2021, when it was unveiled by the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York.
10. Window dedicated to John Hall
This window is located in the South Aisle, above the first of three niches.
As in many other depictions, Nicholas holds a Bible and crosier. On top of the holy book are three gold balls. Today, the pawnbroker’s symbol is three gold balls suspended below a bar, and legend attributes this to St Nicholas.
Although lacking a fuller figure and white beard, the red and white vestments echo the modern image of Santa Claus/Father Christmas.
11. South West Window
Look up at the window above the South Porch entrance.
St Nicholas is depicted alongside St John the Baptist, the Virgin and Child and St John the Evangelist. He is clad in medieval-style robes, his right hand raised in blessing. At his feet is a miniature representation of the tub of brine.
This window was added in 1842, five years after the publication in America of ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’, more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas. This poem redefined the image of St Nicholas in the US and soon spread worldwide.
The name Santa Claus comes from the Dutch ‘Sinterklaas’ and was anglicised when settlers from Holland arrived in New Amsterdam (now called New York), bringing with them their Christmas traditions.