Ilya Repin, Saint Nicholas of Myra Saves Three Innocents from Death, 1888. Currently housed in the Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.
As is often the case with Repin’s paintings, it pays to look closely at the eyes. (For another Repin painting where a figure’s eyes broadcast a terrifying intensity, see Ivan the Terrible with his Son, which Repin finished around three years before his Saint Nicholas painting.) The above painting appeared in the context of debates over capital punishment in late Tsarist Russia.
Repin’s painting depicts an episode from one of the legends associated with St. Nicholas (who really did live in the Fourth Century and whose feast day was December 6). Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, was visiting an outer district of his diocese when he received word that the Roman prefect of Myra, Eustathius, was planning to execute three innocent men. (According to one version of the legend, the three accused were visiting soldiers who were framed.) Nicholas immediately rushed to the site of the planned executions, arriving shortly before the executioner was about to carry out the sentences. The bishop seized the sword from the executioner’s hand and ordered that the prisoners be released from their restraints; apparently, his auctoritas and standing were such that the executioner and others in attendance complied. Nicholas then confronted the prefect, eventually getting Eustathius to confess that he had accepted bribes and had falsely convicted the three condemned men.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.