Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Nicholas of Tolentino in Mexico

In our occasional series on the depiction of catholic saints—both well known and obscure—in Mexican art, we aim to illustrate through images how their cults developed in Mexico.
   This post is devoted to Nicholas of Tolentino, a popular Augustinian saint of the 13th century—in fact the first of that Order to be canonized. 
   While he is portrayed with some frequency in Mexican art—in paintings and statuary—it is mostly in the context of Augustinian churches or monasteries. The saint is traditionally shown as a solemn if austere figure, usually holding a book or a crucifix garlanded with lilies, with a single star or sunburst on his robe. 
St. Nicholas of Tolentino with quail — San Agustín de Oaxaca (facade)
In Mexico, though, his portrayals tend to focus on specific, more picturesque details. In both statuary and painting he is often depicted holding one or a pair of birds—traditionally quails—in illustration of his best known miracle.  (As a vegetarian, he was offered a cooked quail, which he rejected and then brought back to life)

Nicholas of Tolentino and the Miracle of the Quail. Alonso de Herrera  (1555-1624 attr.)
Nicholas of Tolentino with starry robe and dish of quail.  Santiago Tejupan, Oaxaca (pipe organ)
One almost universal aspect of the saint's portrayal in Mexico is his starry robe, covered with multiple stars rather than a single starburst:
San Nicolás Actopan (Hidalgo), portrait of the saint 
Nicholas of Tolentino as a penitent. San Agustín de Oaxaca—altarpiece of San Nicolás.  Tomás de Siguenza, sculptor 
Another popular portrayal of St Nicholas, possibly because of the affinity of Mexicans to religious images of physical suffering, is as a penitent. Usually shown on his knees, half naked, the saint holds a scourge and cross, gazing skyward with an agonized expression.
Nicholas of Tolentino with a Concert of Angels.  Ambroise Fredeau (1589-1673)*
A less common but happier portrayal of St Nicholas relates to an ecstatic episode in his later life in which, in anticipation of death, he heard songs of angels welcoming him to his Heavenly reward.
Nicholas of Tolentino hearing songs of angels.  
San Agustín de Oaxaca—altarpiece of San Nicolás.  Isidro de Castro, artist (1701-1732)
text & images © Richard D. Perry

See our earlier posts in this series: 
 San Antonio Abad, Duns Scotus, San Charbel Maklouf, St Rose of Lima, St Peter Martyr, San DionisioSt Ursula.

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