Saint Nicholas of Myra was born around 280 AD in the city of Patara in the province of Lycia, Asia Minor. His later life was shrouded in legend, however there are several stories about him that seem purely historical.
One of these shows that while Nicholas was visiting a remote part, several citizens of Myra came to him with urgent news: The ruler of the city, Eustathius, had sentenced three innocent men to death. Nicholas immediately went home. Upon reaching the outskirts of the city, he asked those he met on the road if they had news of the prisoners. Knowing that their execution was going to take place that morning, he quickly went to the hangman's square. Here he found a large crowd of people and three men kneeling with clasped hands, awaiting the fatal blow. Nicholas passed through the crowd, took the sword from the hands of the executioner and threw it to the ground, then ordered the condemned to be freed from their bonds. His authority was such that the executioner left his sword where he fell.
Later, Eustathius confessed his sin and asked for forgiveness from the saint. Nicholas acquitted him, but only after the ruler underwent a period of penance.
In the late 19th century, when Russians were embroiled in controversy over the death penalty, Russian artist Ilya Repin expressed his opinion with his painting. After studying ancient icons that show Nicholas holding a sword with his bare hand, Repin reproduced the image. But in a realistic style where each figure shows different attitudes about the bishop's brave intervention - the executioner's shocking astonishment. The pious resignation of the prisoner on his knees, not yet aware of his own life being saved, and the request of a red-cloaked man on behalf of the governor, no doubt suggest that Nicholas had better not interfere.