The Dutch know Saint Nicholas as the patron saint of children and - to a lesser extent - sailors. Furthermore a few readers may gave gazed upon a painting depicting Nicholas providing three poor girls with a dowry, so they would be able to marry. What is much less known, is Nicholas' function as patron saint of bankers who entered into a financial transaction - as is evident from a beautiful fresco in the Santa Croce Basilica of Florence (image 1).
Image 1. Agnolo gaddi, Stori di San Nicola, castigo del debitore in cattiva fede, onderdeel van de frescocyclus in de Capella Castellani, Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence, Italië.
The fresco shows a story from the De Legenda Aurea, written by Jacobus de Voragine (1228/1229 - 1298), who was an archbisshop of Genoa. A man borrowed money from a banker and to add to his promise to repay, he swore an oath on an image of Saint Nicholas (image 2). The banker is depicted in an orange coat, carrying a moneybag in his left hand; the debtor to the right wears a red coat and on top of that a green overcoat.
Image 2. The banker lends money to the debtor. In the background an altarpiece depicting saint Nicholas.
After a while the banker asked in vain for his money to be returned: the debtor claimed he had already repaid him. The moneylender took the matter to court (image 3). At the court hearing the cunning debtor showed up holding a staff - or to be more precise: a hollow staff containing gold coins. When asked to confirm under oath he had already repaid his dues, the debtor asked the banker to briefly hold his staff, which he did. The debtor then swore solemly not only to have repaid his creditor, but even to have returned to him more gold coins than he was due. After this he reached for his staff, which the banker, unaware of the treasure inside, returned to him.
Image 3. The unwitting banker holds the hollow staff, containing gold coins, while his debtor swears to have redeemed his debts.
The debtor appeared to get off scot-free: his trick with the hollow staff prevented him committing perjury because he had in fact temporarily transferred a larger sum in gold coins to his creditor while swearing an oath. Yet the debtor did not fare well: on his way home he fell asleep in the street and was overrun by a horse and carriage. De debtor died, the hollow staff broke open, and the gold coins dropped in the street (image 4). The banker, having been warned of what had happened, hurried to the place of the accident, and seeing the scene understood he had been tricked. Bystanders encouraged him to take the gold coins and leave, but this the banker refused to do: he exclaimed he would only take the money if Saint Nicholas would revive the debtor. The saint answered his prayer, and brough the debtor back to life.
Image 4. The debtor, overrun by horse and carriage, holding the hollow staff in his hand. Next to him his creditor, parying to Saint Nicholas (depicted above to the left).
This story was well-known in the Middle Ages and explains why Saint Nicholas was the patron saint not only of children, but also of bankers fearing never to have their money returned by their debtors. The connection between Saint Nicholas and moneylenders is still visible today in the international icon of pawnbroking (image 5): three gold balls referring to Saint Nicholas, and in particular the story of the saint providing three poor girls with a dowry.
Image 5. Today pawnbrokers use the three gold balls referring to the patron saint of bankers: Saint Nicholas.