On St. Nick’s Beard

The development of the appearance of the modern Santa Claus is a fascinating one, evolving from traditional representations in Germany and the Low Countries, a distinctly English Father Christmas, and the Coca-Cola Company’s efforts to sell product. One of the most distinctive features of the modern portrayal, though, predates all of these: the beard, a sine qua non of the modern depiction, dates back centuries, and likely originated with the historical St. Nicholas himself. Unlike some of the other aspects of his appearance, though, the decision of St. Nicholas (probably) to wear a beard, and the decisions of his later iconographers to depict him with one (or not, as the case may be), were generally not socially or theologically neutral. In this post, I’d like to explore some aspects of the meaning conveyed by St. Nick’s beard, focusing mostly on the Middle Ages and as an excuse to bring up my favorite research topic: the differences that arose between Latin and Greek expressions of Christianity during and after the conflict of the mid-eleventh century.

But first, by way of background, what can be said about the appearance of the historical St. Nicholas, the bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the first half of the fourth century? While the sources for the general practice of the time period are not unanimous, the consensus of the Christian writers of the period, especially in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, seems to have been in favor of beard-wearing [1]. Clement of Alexandria, writing the century prior, argued, “For God wished the woman to be hairless and smooth, rejoicing in her hair alone, like the horse does its mane, but He decorated man with a beard, just like the lions” [2]. Nor was the sentiment confined to Christian authors. Emperor Julian (“the Apostate” or “the Philosopher” depending on whom you ask), about as un-Christian an author as one could ask for and a reasonably close contemporary of Nicholas, is famous for his written defense of the beard. At the same time, clergy in many parts of the West, and the city of Rome in particular, retained the republican and imperial Roman custom of cleanshavenness.

The preference of the Eastern churchmen has been taken into account for forensic reconstructions done on the basis of the relics in his tomb in Bari, and the resulting depiction is dominated by a sizeable beard ]. This depiction persisted in subsequent centuries of Greek Christian iconography. From the earliest surviving example (seventh or eighth century, available in the Mount Sinai Archives), through to the present day, St. Nicholas, in the Greek tradition, is consistently depicted with a beard. And, given his ubiquity in the medieval and modern Orthodox church setting, it might be fair to say that he became one of the definitive archetypes for how clergy should look.

Apse of the Ferapontov Convent, Russia, By Dionisius, turn of the 16th c.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Clerical appearance took on a new significance as conflicts between the Greek and Latin churches began to arise. During the so-called “Photian Schism” in the ninth century, for example, while Photios himself noted the differences between Greek and Latin practices with equanimity, other Greeks were less tolerant [3]. The Roman Pope at the time, Nicholas I, complained to Hincmar of Reims that the Greeks condemned them for being clean shaven [4]. By the time of the legation of 1054, this condemnation had grown into an occasional cause for a break in communion. As Humbert of Silva Candida complained: “maintaining the hair of their head and their beards, they [i.e., the Greeks] do not receive into communion those who tonsure their hair and shave their beards according to the institution of the Roman Church” [5].

The Latins, as mentioned above, were much friendlier to the notion of cleanshavenness as far back as the Patristic period, especially among the clergy, and this permissiveness gradually evolved into a situation in which not having a beard became one of the defining markers of the clerical state. Even within monastic communities, wearing a beard was a sign of the low social standing of lay brothers in religious communities. Monks who were also ordained, in contrast, were usually clean shaven [6]. Defenders of the Latin tradition, therefore, predictably took a very different position from their Greek interlocutors. This expression ranged from the mild-mannered observation of the difference in practice made by the Norman Anonymous, writing around the turn of the twelfth century (“they observe a different custom in tonsure and habit […], for they are bearded”) to the vituperative Leo Tuscus half a century later (“Their priests, in a Jewish manner, permit their beards to grow, which are sodden with the Lord’s blood when it is drunk by them.”) [7].

So what of St. Nicholas? While the Greeks continued to portray him in the traditional manner, Latin artists (or perhaps iconographers?) chose to portray him not as he was, but as they felt he ought to have been. The Nicholas that emerges in the late Middle Ages looks every bit the part of a Latin bishop: in Latin clerical dress, complete with miter and crosier, and without a trace of a beard.

The De Grey Hours (c. 1390), National Library of Wales, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The De Grey Hours (c. 1390), National Library of Wales, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, it is important to note that St. Nicholas was hardly alone in this treatment: it was entirely commonplace to update the saints of antiquity to suit the sartorial standards of the artist. At the same time, precious few saints with so wide a following in the Latin Church were known to be Greek, and the Greek preference for the beard was equally well known, so it’s difficult not to see some degree of deliberate Latinization in the portrayal of the saint.

In the end, East-West polemic shifted to other topics, clearing the way for the restoration of the beard. And, in a sense, in fixing the image of a bearded Santa Claus so firmly in the modern imagination, to the point that a beardless Santa Claus would be near anathema, perhaps the Coca-Cola Company has earned a small debt of gratitude from contemporary iconographers.

Nick Kamas
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] A. Edward Siecienski, “Holy Hair: Beards in the Patristic Tradition” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 58:1 (2014), 64.

[2] Clement of Alexandria, Paidogogus 3.3. PG 8.580.

[3] Photius of Constantinople, The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Long Island City, NY: Studion Publishers, 1983), 45–46. For a discussion of this and many of the following sources, see A. Edward Siecienski, Beards, Azymes, and Purgatory: The Other Issues that Divided East and West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023), 38–78.

[4] PP Nicholas I, Epistola Hincmaro et Ceteris Confratribus Nostris Archiepiscopis et Episcopis in Regno Karoli Gloriosi Regis […], MGH Epistolae VI, 603.

[5] “Excommunicatio qua feriuntur Michael Caerularius atque ejus sectatores.” Acta et Scripta, ed. Cornelius Will (Frankfurt am Main: Minerva GMBH, 1963), 153–154.

[6] Giles Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 195–196.

[7] Norman Anonymous. “De consecratione sacerdotis,” in Die Texte des Normannischen Anonymus, ed. Karl Pellens (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1966), 104. Leo Tuscus, Malae consuetudines Graecorum, PG 140.547D.

Arguing against the Greeks: The Dominican Tractatus contra Graecos of 1252

Fragment of a floor mosaic (13th century) depicting the sack of Constantinople by the Latin crusaders in 1204; Ravenna, San Giovanni Evangelista

The Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438/39) is considered the last remarkable, though ultimately unsuccessful, attempt in the Middle Ages to restore church unity between the Latin West and the Greek East. Throughout history, certain events and their enduring consequences had nourished a growing scissure that ever deepened the alienation between the churches – just to mention a few of the most striking: the so-called Photian schism at the end of the 9th century, the mutual excommunications in 1054, the sack of Constantinople in 1204 followed by the Latin Empire of Constantinople until 1261, the Byzantine Emperor’s acceptance of an eventually short-lived church union on the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 (succeeded, though, by its refusal in 1282) etc. Following the history of reception of these events in the Middle Ages and beyond is like dealing with not only one, but several “points of no return”: While this might seem contradictory to itself, it nevertheless helps to understand (1) that dating the breakout of the schism depends on what kinds of sources we rely on, and (2) that, again throughout history, there have been many attempts and frequent parallel endeavours to heal this fracture between the churches.

© Viliam Štefan Dóci OP

One milestone of such an effort was the lifetime achievement of an anonymous Dominican from the year 1252, a learned theologian who dedicated himself to an in-depth study of the Greek language, theology, and church life. Based on this knowledge, he was capable and well-equipped to write a theological treatise “Against the Greeks” (Tractatus contra Graecos) in Constantinople, which eventually became a bestseller in controversial literature dealing with how to argue in Greek-Latin debates. Up to the 15th century, it greatly influenced theology and the Latin church and deeply affected how Latin authors perceived the Greek church. The anonymous Dominican was the first theologian who determined what later appeared on the agenda of the union councils in Lyon (1274) and Ferrara-Florence (1438/39): That a number of four issues of conflict – filioque, purgatory, azymes, and Roman primacy – had to be solved in order to proclaim the unity of the church, something which he didn’t see as lost, but as highly at risk. In a manner of fraternal correction, the Dominican author sought to convince the Greeks of their errors by quoting their own reliable sources, i.e. the Greek fathers and church councils, and by demonstrating that they all, in fact, supported the Latin positions. Additionally, he provided his (indented Latin) readers with a dossier of contemporary Greek writings in a Latin translation along with a commentary which was both meant to keep the readers informed about the situation on the spot and to support their argumentation in ongoing debates.

“Tractatus contra Graecos” (Inc.: Licet grecorum ecclesiam); Mantova, Bibliotecta Communale, Ms. Nr. 604 (D. I. 31), fol. 1ra-43rb, here: 1r

From today’s perspective, the actual value and impact of the Tractatus contra Graecos is impaired by the fact that today it is known only based on an early modern edition of 1616[1], which is deficient and at times almost incomprehensible. This is why an updated and reliable critical edition is a particularly urgent task: Based on 30 manuscripts that are known thus far and that are kept in libraries in Central and Southern or Southeast Europe, a critical edition will lead to a reconstruction of the text ranging from the time it was written in mid-13th-century Constantinople up to how it was used as a handout and source of information on the councils of the Late Middle Ages by leading Latin theologians. The surviving manuscripts give evidence that not only in the 15th century, but also already by the author himself, the treatise has been remodelled and shaped according to the needs of time and occasion. Both the critical edition of this Dominican key work and its history of reception contribute to a better understanding of the relationship between Rome and Byzantium in the Middle Ages and, thus, to a more detailed knowledge of the history of today’s Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Dr. Andrea Riedl
Senior research fellow at the Department of Theology/University of Vienna and currently visiting researcher at the Medieval Institute/University of Notre Dame.

[1] Ed. Petrus Stevartius Leodiensis (1549–1624), Tomus singularis insignium auctorum, tam graecorum, quam latinorum, Ingolstadt 1616, 487–574, and reprinted in Migne’s Patrologia graeca, PG 140, 487–574. This is the transcription of a manuscript of the Bavarian State Library in Munich, Clm 110 (fol. 1r-88).