Out of the Wings

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San Nicolás de Tolentino (1614)

English title: St Nicholas of Tolentino
Notable variations on Spanish title: El santo de los milagros
Date written: ?1614

God, the Virgin Mary, St Augustine, the devil and a range of perverse demons all appear on stage in the story of a quiet, humble boy who became one of the Church's most prodigious miracle workers. Funny, moving (and sometimes just bizarre), this play evokes the spirit of Counter-Reformation Spain in all its fascinating complexity.


Nicolás and his friends – theology students at the local university – pass the afternoon engaged in a spurious pseudo-scholastic debate on the biblical evidence for the supposed inferiority of women. They look forward to the festivities planned for that evening, in celebration of the recent papal election, at which one of them, Nicolás’s cousin, Ursino, will seek out a woman for whom he harbours a burning passion. Whilst Nicolás is a much-loved member of this group of friends, his seriousness and piety set him apart and he advises them to avoid the debauched fiesta and to spend the evening in prayer and contemplation instead. The friends are unimpressed and head off to have fun. Nicolás’s warnings are quickly shown to have been justified: Ursino is tricked by the devil and falls to his death, his soul in a state of sin. The devil immediately calls for Ursino’s damnation before the Last Judgment Tribunal. But the Virgin Mary intercedes of his behalf, whereupon God rules that Ursino’s sins be off-set by the virtues of his cousin, Nicolás. The devil is apoplectic with fury and vows to make Nicolás pay. Ursino’s death shocks the group of friends and prompts them to reassess their lives. A famous Augustinian friar preaches a sermon which moves Nicolás and also his comic sidekick friend, Ruperto, emphasizing as it does God’s limitless mercy, willingly offered even to the most unworthy. The pair resolve to join the Augustinian Order and break the news to their loved ones. Ruperto’s fiancée, Celia, greets the news in a mocking tone adopted to hide her heartbreak. By the start of Act Two some time has passed and Nicolás and Ruperto are now established members of their monastic community. The scenes that follow dramatize the hero’s great holiness, his power to invoke miracles and the terrifying demonic temptations to which he was subjected. Meanwhile Ruperto is subjected to subtler temptations in the form of voluptuous Celia, who comes offering him a variety of treats and more besides. Whilst Ruperto lacks Nicolás’s resolve in resisting temptation, he shows his essential goodness in caring for his master, as Nicolás’s health slowly deteriorates as a result of his abstinence and self-sacrifice. He is comforted in his decline by a series of supernatural visions which assure him of God’s favour. The humour that is a prominent feature of this saint’s play comes to the fore at the end of the second act when Nicolás, having taken a vow of vegetarianism, manages to resuscitate a roast partridge to avoid having to eat it. The partridge flies off, to the consternation of Ruperto, who chases after it, unwilling to waste any morsel of food and oblivious to the fact that he has witnessed a miracle. In Act Three the two initial scenes juxtapose the exposition of the Turin Shroud with Nicolás’s mending of his own worn habit, inviting us to see Christ in Nicolás. The Nicolás we see in Act Three is frail, but still untiring in his efforts to show love for others. He ensures the survival of his monastery by getting water from a stone, like Moses. He also offers hope to the souls in Purgatory – including those of his own mother and father – promising to pray unceasingly for their speedy ascension into heaven. All this is too much for the devil, who decides that since he has failed to tempt Nicolás into sin, the best course of action would be to kill him, to remove his holy example from the world. The devil does his worst, but Nicolás survives this demonic onslaught, to live a while longer. The final scenes of the play have Nicolás preparing for death, comforted and regaled by angels. His legacy is shown to be assured when his panecitos – miraculous bread cakes that were a gift from the Virgin Mary – are proved to be effective in saving a nearby house from destruction by fire. Nicolás dies and his soul is seen rising up to heaven, carrying with it the souls he has rescued from Purgatory through the power of his intercessory prayers. Ruperto hides his grief and goes off to assist his brothers, as the local populace gathers at the monastery’s doors to show their devotion to ‘their saint’.


Much of the plot is based on the hagiographic accounts of St Nicholas's life and miracles. Just as much comes from Lope's own prolific imagination, though, the play mixing sacred with profane themes, and piety with comedy.

Critical response

Critics writing about Lope's saints' plays usually make the point that the Golden Age audience's expectations of religious drama were different from their expectations of secular drama. In particular, the 'plots' of saints' plays can often feel disjointed because of the need to depict events in the saints' lives that took place over many years. The effect can be to make these saints' plays feel like a series of 'tableaux vivants'. Their intention was not to grip the spectator with a captivating plot, but rather to move and inspire him through a depiction of sanctity. These Early Modern saints' plays are the product of a deeply religious society.

Further information

The play was in the repertory of theatre producer Pedro de Valdes in 1615, when he was contracted by the city authorities of Seville to put on a series of performances for that year's Corpus Christi celebrations. Aside from that, nothing is known about the play's production history.

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Entry submitted by RoyNorton on 4 May 2012 and last updated by Kathleen Jeffs on 16 May 2012

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