This painting is a highly finished sketch, known in Italian as a modello, for the fresco that adorns the dome (or cupola) in the church of San Nicola alla Carità in Naples. Despite its rectangular shape, it was intended to be the centre of a circular architecture.
The busy composition shows at the top Christ by the Cross, with God the Father to his left, and above the dove of the Holy Spirit – completing the Holy Trinity – welcoming Saint Nicholas into Paradise. Saint Nicholas, portrayed in the lower centre left, was a bishop who lived around 400 AD in what is now Turkey, and he is here shown dressed in light-coloured bishop’s vestments with a cherub holding his crozier. Shortly before 1100 AD his relics arrived in Bari, on the east coast of Southern Italy, where he was celebrated for rescuing sailors and for bringing gifts to the poor, inspiring the story and the figure of Santa Claus.
Solid clouds to the right of Jesus hold the Virgin Mary and Saint Peter, the gatekeeper of Heaven; below them is Saint John the Evangelist with the chalice of the Sacrament. At the top left is Saint Francis, the founder of the Franciscan Order, while Saint Dominic, the founder of the Dominican Order, is lower right; both Religious Orders specialised in charitable work, followed in Saint Nicholas' footsteps. Amongst the figures of the lower order of clouds, it is possible to recognise Saint Januarius gazing upwards, with the characteristic mitre, orange vestment, and the crozier held by a cherub to his left. On the left-hand side of the composition is Andrew leaning on a tick rounded Cross, who is prominent among other Apostles and Evangelists.
The important commission for the cupola of San Nicola alla Carità confirmed De Mura as the leading painter to have come out of Francesco Solimena's workshop. In this composition, De Mura combines certain decorative and theatrical formulae inherited by the Emilian painters Correggio and Lanfranco with the classicism and solidity of Solimena's middle years. The overlaying of figures, the clear and golden colouring, and the solidity of the clouds contribute to a dense overall effect. De Mura received a payment of one thousand ducats for this fresco, and the result “n'ebbe l'applauso del Pubblico” (received applause from the public) as the biographer De Dominici testimonies.
Francesco de Mura St Nicholas of Bari Received into Paradise 1733–1734 © Compton Verney