Private collection, United Kingdom
S. Guillot de Suduiraut, Sculptures brabançonnes du Musée du Louvre: Bruxelles, Malines, Anvers, XVe-XVIe siècles (Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 2001), cat. 15, pp. 106-107
K. M. Woods, Imported Images: Netherlandish Late Gothic Sculpture in England, c. 1400 - c. 1550 (Paul Watkins Publishing, Donington, 2007), p. 303, fig. 119
This beautiful limestone capital tells the story of Saint Nicholas and the dowry for the three virgins. According to legend, there was a devout but poor man who had three daughters. He could not afford dowries for them with the consequence that they would all remain unmarried and may have had to turn to prostitution in order to survive. Hearing of their plight, Saint Nicholas decided to provide the dowries himself. In order to save the father the humiliation of having to accept charity and to preserve his honour, Saint Nicholas assisted him secretly. In the scene depicted, the despondent poor man sits on a chair on the left side, his three daughters grouped in front of him, one kneeling with her hands in prayer. Behind them is a wall with an open window through which the hidden Saint Nicholas, recognisable by his halo, passes a bag of money. One version of the legend tells of Saint Nicholas throwing one purse through a tower window over three consecutive nights – and on the left hand side of our capital can be seen a barred window. Another version has him throwing the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes of age. In yet another version, the dowries are dropped down the chimney, the source of the Christmas tale that Saint Nicholas (or Santa Claus) travels down the chimney to deposit gifts. The custom of hanging Christmas stockings stems from variants of the story according to which Saint Nicholas filled the stockings of each virgin with gold coins and that the bags of gold fell into stockings left hanging by the daughters to dry by the fire embers.
The moulding at the top of the capital is decorated with flamboyant foliate ornamentation, a style prevalent by the end of the fifteenth century and into the sixteenth in continental Europe. A carved stone capital with such a scene is unusual for this period. It is likely to have been one of a series, perhaps depicting the life of Saint Nicholas, and would probably have been placed above a half-column decorating a private chapel. The style of carving, the densely grouped figures and the attention given to details of dress are indicative of a Brabantine origin. The pretty, rounded faces and rich costumes of the virgins are comparable to those found on Malines figures of around 1500 which are normally carved in wood and painted to a high finish – see, for example, the figure of Saint Margret in the Musée du Louvre (Inv. R.F. 2572) who wears a dress with a similar cut to the virgin kneeling in the foreground and has rounded shoes similar to two of the virgins. The costumes, notably the headdresses, and close grouping of figures are comparable to the donors in a carved wooden relief, probably from Brabant around 1520 – 1530, now in the Church of Saint Mary, Brownsea Island, Dorset.