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Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Saving a Shipwreck
Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Saving a Shipwreck, 1457
Giovanni di Paolo (Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia), Italian (active Siena)
Tempera and gold on panel with vertical grain
20 1/2 x 16 5/8 inches (52.1 x 42.2 cm)
John G. Johnson Collection, 1917
Inv. 723
[ More Details ]

Looking and Discussing

Initial Observation
Have students work as a group to create a list of everything they see in the painting. Encourage students to list colors, textures, and shapes, as well as objects.

Open Discussion
Begin an open discussion of the painting by asking students to share their first impressions of the work. Encourage students to think further by asking them if they are responding to things they can see in the painting or if they are inferring things based on what they already know. What visual information in the painting is leading them to certain conclusions or assumptions? What life experiences are informing their responses?

Directed Looking
  • Where do you think this event is occurring? How do you know?
  • What is the weather like? How do you know?
    The event is taking place during a storm—note the large waves, snapped masts, torn sails, and dark sky.
  • Where do you see people? What are they doing?
    There are people kneeling and praying on the deck of the ship, flying above the ship, and swimming below the ship.

  • This painting illustrates an event that survivors recounted in the 1400s. Can you think of a story to fit this picture?
    Tell students the story of Saint Nicholas saving a ship. Point out the details that Giovanni di Paolo included.
  • Giovanni di Paolo was known for creating highly dramatic paintings of religious stories. What elements of this painting seem dramatic?
    The dramatic elements of this painting include the dark sky and wildly fluttering broken sails, Saint Nicholas bursting through the clouds, praying passengers, mountainous waves, and the mysterious mermaid. The use of dark colors—deep greens in particular—contrasted against the bright gold surrounding Saint Nicholas, the yellow deck of the ship, and the streak of yellow across the horizon all add to the drama of this painting.
  • What did the artist do to make this painting seem three-dimensional? Look for diagonal lines, which suggest distance, and shading, which suggests rounded forms.
    Note, for example, how the waves move in diagonals towards the horizon.

  • Find other paintings depicting supernatural events. How are they different? How are they similar?
  • Find other paintings portraying storms at sea. How are they different? How are they similar?

Further Discussion
  • Giovanni di Paolo had to choose one moment of the story of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino saving a ship. Does the moment he chose do a good job of telling the story? Why or why not?
  • Discuss this work as part of a large, multi-paneled altarpiece. How would seeing this work along with other paintings about Saint Nicholas affect the way you viewed it?
  • Discuss the idea of a miracle. Are miracles still being reported today?


  • Just as Giovanni di Paolo chose one moment of a story to illustrate, have students choose a story and tell it with only one picture.
  • Giovanni di Paolo based this painting on the accounts of witnesses. Have students choose a newspaper article about an event or a description of an historical event in a book and illustrate it. Or, have students describe an event in their lives to one another to illustrate.
  • Talk about how this painting was originally part of a large altarpiece that had a central image of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino surrounded by smaller paintings depicting some of the miracles he performed. Have students create a group of pictures that tell about themselves or an historical figure of their choice.


  • 1412 Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi sets down the rules of linear perspective
  • 1415 Henry V defeats the French Army at Agincourt, enabling England to conquer much of France
  • 1431 Joan of Arc is burned at the stake in Rouen, France
  • 1438 Incan ruler Pachacuti establishes the dynasty that prevails until Spanish conquistadors vanquish the empire a century later
  • 1444 Kidnapped Africans sold at Portuguese slave markets
  • 1453 Turks conquer Constantinople, ending the Byzantine Empire
  • 1455 Gutenberg Bible is the first large book to be printed from movable metal type
  • 1457 Giovanni di Paolo paints the panel from an altarpiece Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Saving a Shipwreck
  • 1477 Japan’s ten-year civil war ends indecisively, century of internal wars ensues
  • 1478 Spanish Inquisition is established by Pope Sixtus IV at the request of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella
  • 1488 Portugese navigator Bartholomeu Dias rounds the Cape of Good Hope, advancing European exploration of Africa
  • 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella conquer Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain
    Christopher Columbus reaches the Americas
  • 1498 Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama establishes a sea route from western Europe around Africa to India, opening India to direct trade with Europe
  • c. 1504 Leonardo da Vinci paints Mona Lisa
    Michelangelo carves David
  • 1513 Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa sights the Pacific Ocean
  • 1514 Portugal establishes trade with China
  • 1521 Spanish commander Hernando Cortés conquers the capital of the Aztec empire and establishes Mexico City

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