The reign of Constantine The Great was not always stable. Borders had to be protected, laws enforced and if unrest broke out or even a sniff of conspiracy surfaced, Constantine also dealt with these matters seriously and harshly. Often though he left law enforcement in regional centres to be carried out by governors and local authorities. In this setting Church leaders or bishops would also come to play an important role in Constantine’s new world by acting often as imperial officials to administer law and justice. The people of the empire then not only looked to their prefects, but to their local Bishops to help maintain law and order. In some Christian legends, Bishops like St. Nicholas would play an important role in helping serve the people and the emperor.
There are numerous stories written by Christian writers that have Nicholas of Myra caught up in the middle of ‘affairs of state’. His actions are often done on the behalf of his people of Myra and always in the defense of the Christian faith. One such legend comes to mind and that is the story of how St. Nicholas with his own hands stopped the execution of three condemned innocents. The visual history of this story in Repin’s oil painting is one that reveals the power of this man and the righteous convictions that he lived by.
In the story of the three condemned innocents, the corrupt prefect Eustathios had accepted bribes to bring about the deaths of three men. As word had spread of the planned execution of these three innocent men, Nicholas made it his business to save them and headed for where a great crowd had gathered to watch the executioner about to swing his sword across the neck of the first man. Arriving on the scene, he was disgusted to see the three men kneeling, heads bowed and their hands tied behind their back. Nicholas then stepped in front of the executioner and grabbed the sword from him and threw it to the ground. The courageous bishop was not one to be intimidated by the power of others, especially the power of the corrupt. Nicholas then stormed into the prefect’s office and demanded that the charges against the three men be dropped. Nicholas also threatened to inform the Emperor of the prefect’s involvement in the crime against the innocent men. Frightened, Eustathios begged Nicholas for forgiveness and quickly pardon the three condemned innocents.
It is stories like this that have given rise to the fame and legend of St. Nicholas. His concern for his subjects above all less has endeared him to Christians around the world. In the annals of Roman history, I can’t say that I have read this account before in any official record. We have to keep in mind that some of these stories have been written to promote and praise the early Christian church. Nonetheless, it is a story that resonates with many of us about what is right and honorable. What do you think?
The header image is an oil painting by IIya Repin in 1888, entitled Saint Nicholas of Myra saves three innocents from death. It currently resides in the State Russian Museum.