Painting Boredom in the Renaissance

A charitable Renaissance painting with a cure for boredom

Posted Dec 14, 2014

The Charity of 
St Nicholas of Bari, Carlo Portelli/ Girolo Macchietti
The Charity of 
St Nicholas of Bari, Carlo Portelli/ Girolo Macchietti
Wikimedia Commons (www.thearttribune.com)


The three bored young women, daughters of the older man on the right, are having trouble finding husbands. Their father, who’s poor or impoverished, can’t raise their dowry. So they stay on at home. No wonder they’re so bored.

According to the legend these unmarried women actually faced a worse future than just a straightened life at home. They might be hawked as slaves, or even sold off as prostitutes. So why don't they look more concerned?

This is where St. Nicholas comes in. He got wind of the situation and decided to save the women. It’s a purse of gold that he anonymously delivers as a dowry for each of the sisters in most versions of the story. Here it's the more dramatic and easier-to-see balls of gold – symbols for money. He consigns the cash without identifying himself and under the awning of darkness. It goes through the open window. That’s St. Nicholas in salmon-pink reaching up to throw the gifts through the opening. His secretiveness spares the family embarrassment for accepting charity. One ball is already on the bed at the top of the painting beside the now liberated young woman, also in salmon. The sisters will have one each and, thanks to St. Nicholas, they will marry. They’ll all wear salmon-pink and be free of boredom, slavery and prostitution for ever more.

But, really, why are they looking so bored? And boredom it is, not depression or just sleepiness. When people adopt this posture in company - the head lolling somnolently on the hand and the elbow, rested on a firm surface, holding it up - that’s the emotion you’re dealing with. It’s sometimes said that their posture conjures the theme of sleep. The girls may be asleep – their father is. But the woman at the bottom left looks wide-awake to me. The posture of the women is the one that people adopt in paintings when they are bored.

The “Deliverance from Boredom” (it’s real name is the “Charity of St Nicholas of Bari” and dates to the 1550's) took place in fourth-century Myra in southern Turkey. Myra was St Nicholas’ hometown (his remains were later transferred to Bari and the “of Bari” in the title of the panel comes from that post-mortem location). He was born there round 270 CE. The painting was reimagined over one thousand years later. The scene that it depicts is closely associated with Christmas gift giving. (St. Nicholas’ name was eventually corrupted to produce Santa Claus.) The three golden balls are still associated with Christmas gifting. When St. Nicholas threw his golden largesse through the window opening, it landed, in some versions, in stockings or even shoes. This is said to be the origin of the Christmas stocking. And many people still give oranges at Christmas. The tale, as you can see, is behind the Christmas tradition of Santa Claus and the rescue of these girls is an enactment of Christmas habit of present giving. But it’s also saved them from a boring life with their father – and in this picture from a probably very boring Christmas.

There’s the answer to the boring conundrum. The painter has toned the legend down. Trafficking in slaves and prostitutes isn’t the best of themes for festive times. How does he do it? He uses the motif of boredom to suggest that it’s just a lack of wherewithal that’s troubling the family – not slavery or prostitution. No one looks bored when they’re about to be sold into slavery or prostitution. The family’s problem is poverty. That leaves the girls stuck at home husbandless and, in addition, it means this festive season is going to be a very dull one indeed. The artist conjures up a trio of young women who are bored beyond basalt because, dowry apart, they can expect nothing at all in this celebratory season. Now who hasn’t been through a Christmas like that?

Two things intrigue. The painting is all about almsgiving, in festive times, to those less fortunate. That’s what the figure of St. Nicholas stands for. It’s probably what the original owners of this panel prided themselves in. The girls in the painting are not starving or depressed. Their poverty, their straightened circumstances, are just bad enough to leave them bored. St Nicholas won’t tolerate their boredom.

Second, the painter uses a simple emotion, boredom, and the visual language associated with it, to make his point. But for the boredom this would be a very grim painting. It’s not the sort of thing you’d want to keep in a bedroom – the place it may have originally been preserved. Boredom comes to the rescue.

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