St. Nicholas

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Saint in Bari
San Nicola, Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Italy
The Bari image combines Eastern and Western images.
Photo: Centro Studi Nicoliaiani

How did the Bishop of Myra become 'Saint in Bari'? It's a long way from Lycia to the eastern coast of Italy.

St. Nicholas' tomb in Myra was a popular place of pilgrimage. As Myra was a seaport, sailors heard the stories of the saint's shrine and carried them to many distant places. If a town were fortunate enough to host such a significant religious site, it enjoyed considerable commercial benefit because pilgrims needed to be housed, fed, and otherwise provided for. After Myra fell under the control of the Seljuks, who were not sympathetic to Christian faith, Italian merchants in both Venice and Bari, saw an opportunity to bring such advantage to their cities. Their motives were opportunistic, but also spiritual, as there was real fear that pilgrimage could become difficult and dangerous or that the shrine might even be desecrated.

St. Nicholas Church, Myra
St. Nicholas Church, Myra (Demre, Turkey)
Photo: Anglican World/JMR

Early in 1087, three ships with sailors and merchants from Bari stopped in Myra on their way home from Antioch. When they visited Nicholas' tomb, the monks showed them where the manna was extracted. The sailors then asked where the saint's body lay. The monks, perhaps naively, showed them. But the monks became suspicious and questioned the visitors about their intentions, "Surely you do not intend to take the saint's remains to your own region? If so, we won't allow it." However, in the end the Barians prevailed and broke open the tomb with an iron bar. The sailors spirited the bones away to the ship, escaping just ahead of the townspeople coming in hot pursuit.

The men of Bari sailed away on the long voyage back to the southeast coast of Italy. Before getting there, they stopped at a nearby port to make a beautiful box (casket) to hold the saint's relics. When they arrived in Bari, May 9, 1087, the townspeople thronged to the harbor to welcome the saint's remains. The returning men made a solemn vow to build a magnificent church to honor St. Nicholas.

The crypt was completed by October 1089 and Pope Urban II laid the relics of St. Nicholas beneath the crypt's altar, consecrating a shrine that became one of medieval Europe's great pilgrimage centers. The main church was built in ten years, but it wasn't until the middle of the 12th century that the imposing and majestic Basilica di San Nicola was complete. It is a particularly fine example of Romanesque architecture and served as a prototype for many other churches and cathedrals.

Crypt, Basilica San Nicola di Bari
Crypt, Basilica San Nicola di Bari
Photo: Centro Studi Nicolaiani
St Nicholas Tomb, Basilica San Nicola di Bari
St. Nicholas' Tomb in the crypt, Basilica San Nicola di Bari Photo: Centro Studi Nicolaiani

As many faithful pilgrims journeyed to Bari to honor St. Nicholas, he became known as Saint in Bari. Pilgrims were particularly attracted because the tomb continued to exude the manna of the saint just as it had in Myra. From the earliest time St. Nicholas devotees have asked for protection and health in mind and body through the use of the manna (click for more). It was diluted and made available in bottles decorated with images of the saint. Over the centuries a unique art of painting these glass bottles developed in Apulia. Every year the translation of the Nicholas relics to Bari is celebrated with a great festival which culminates in the extraction of the manna by the rector of the Basilica.

Extracting the manna, 2012

St Nicholas Manna Bottle
Handpainted Manna Bottle
St Nicholas Center Collection
Orthodox Iconostas
Orthodox Chapel, Basilica di San Nicola Photo: C Myers

Since 1951 the basilica had been home to a community of Dominican Friars and is now an active ecumenical center. In 1966, at one side of the crypt, an Orthodox chapel was established to provide for Orthodox liturgy. The ecumenical vision of the Dominican brothers sees St. Nicholas as everyone's saint, serving to bring together Christians of many varying expressions from both East and West, to worship God in unity, confessing one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In 2018 Pope Francis invited religious leaders from all the Middle East denominations to meet in Bari to pray for peace in the Middle East and an end to conflict in Syria. It would be an “ecumenical meeting for peace to discuss the dramatic situation of the Middle East that afflicts so many brothers and sisters in the faith.” Bari was chosen because it represents the “window into the East” and is also the home of the relics of St Nicholas, who is venerated by the Western and Eastern Christians alike.

1987 Vatican stamp
1987 Vatican stamp—
9th centenary of the 1087 Translation of the Relics
St Nicholas Center Collection

Devotion and Use of the Manna of St. Nicholas
from the Centro Studi Nicolaiani di Bari

More Images from Bari

Ecumenical Saint 
"Eastern and Western Christians United Like Brothers in St. Nicholas' Name" by Aristides Panotis

The Silver Rose of St. Nicholas
A unique ecumenial award in honor of St. Nicholas

Translation of Saint Nicholas
Earliest account, written by Nicephorus immediately after the arrival in Bari, May 9, 1087

Translation of Saint Nicholas
13th Century anonymous Greek account

Festival of the Translation of the Relics
May 7-9 each year in Bari, Italy

A Pilgrim's Experience
First impressions of the Bari May Festival

Translation Monument in San Giorgio

Is St. Nicholas in Venice, too?

St. Nicholas Shrines in Bari 

Artist in Bari: Anna Maria Di Terlizzi
Mixed media images of San Nicola

Bari's Borrowed Wonder Worker: A Byzantine Catholic looks at the Bari May Festival

Relics arriving in Bari Relics coming ashore Relics placed in shrine

Icons of the Translation of the Relics, St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, Bari Italy
Photos: C Myers, St. Nicholas Center

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