Saint Nicholas' Three Graves
Adapted from a 22 December 2015 article on the website StrangeRemains.com
While the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy is
widely accepted to be home to the relics of Saint Nicholas, there are two other cities that allege to possess his grave: Venice,
Italy and Newtown Jerpoint, Ireland. This osteological controversy started when the bones of this charitable saint were
looted from his tomb in Turkey some time at the end of the 11th century, about 700 years after he died.
St. Nicholas was born around 270 AD to a wealthy family in the village of Patara in modern Turkey.
He became well-known for his philanthropic nature after he gave away his fortune to help the sick and the poor. Nicholas
was so famous for his kindness that he eventually became the basis for the Santa Claus legend. He was elected Bishop
of Myra, a Roman city in modern-day Turkey, despite not being a priest at the time, possibly because his uncle previously
held the position.
The Original Tomb of St. Nicholas
in 343 AD and his remains were interred at Saint Nicholas Church in Myra. Nicholas was recognized as a saint locally
before the Church had a formalized canonization process.
In 1087, sailors from Bari, Italy traveled to Myra to visit the
tomb of St. Nicholas, not to pray for a miracle, but to steal the relics and bring them home. Some say the Christian
sailors stole the skeletal remains to save them from the invading Seljuk Turks, while others think they were stolen to bring
money from the lucrative pilgrimage industry to Bari.
The Tomb of St. Nicholas in
When the bones
arrived in Bari in May of 1087, the townspeople vowed to build a basilica to house the relics. St. Nicholas' crypt was
completed in 1089 and Pope Urban II translated the relics and consecrated the shrine at the Basilica di San Nicola.
The bones continued to secrete the famous manna in the new tomb in Bari. Since 1980, the liquid
is harvested from the bottom of the tomb on May 9th, the Feast of the Translation of Saint Nicholas from Myra to Bari.
In 1957, a Dr. Luigi Martino, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bari, led a research team
charged with examining and documenting St. Nicholas' bones. The skull was in pretty good condition but the rest of the
bones were fragmented and fragile. Martino found that these remains belonged to an elderly man between 72 and 80 years
old, which fit Nicholas' reputed age at death of about 75 years.
For centuries Venetians claimed that the church of San Nicolò
al Lido also possessed the bones of St. Nicholas. They claim that when troops sailed from Venice to fight in the First
Crusade in 1099, they stopped off in Myra. During this visit, these sailors visited St. Nicholas Church and robbed the saint's
tomb and stole an urn with the inscription, "Here
lies the Great Bishop Nicholas, Glorious on Land and Sea."
The ships returned to Venice in 1101, after the First Crusade ended, with
some of St. Nicholas' remains. The bones were ultimately interred in a funerary monument at San Nicolò al Lido.
Reliquary of St. Nicholas under
the Altar in the Church of San Nicolò di Lido, Venice
For centuries, Bari and Venice conducted
a heated dispute over who really had Nicholas' bones. So Dr. Luigi Martino, the anatomist who examined the bones in
Bari in 1957, was allowed to look at the Venetian bones in 1992 to settle the debate. Dr. Martino discovered that the Venetian
bones were broken into "as many as 500" pieces and were in the same poor condition as the Bari relics.
However, Martino was able to determine that the skeletal remains in Bari and
Venice were likely from the same man because the pieces of the Venetian bones are fragments of body parts missing from the
body interred at Bari. It is thought that, in 1099, Venetian sailors stole the bone fragments left behind by the Bari
sailors in 1087. The Venetian bones, however, reportedly do not secrete manna.
The Irish Claim
But Irish historians allege that the body of St. Nicholas is really buried in
an abandoned medieval town in Ireland. Central to the Irish claims to St. Nicholas' grave are de Frainets, a French
family who participated in the Crusades. In one tale, two knights named Den and de Frainet robbed the Nicholas' relics
from the Basilica in Bari on their way home from the Crusades and brought them to Ireland.
The grave slab of St. Nicholas at
Jerpoint Abbey, Ireland
In another story, the
de Frainets helped to steal St. Nicholas' relics from Myra and brought them to Bari, at a time when the town was under the
control of the Norman French. When the Normans were pushed out of Bari, the de Frainets moved to Nice, France and took
St. Nicholas' remains with them. The relics remained in France until the Normans lost power in the area.
Nicholas de Frainet then brought the bones to Newtown Jerpoint, a medieval town where his family
owned land. There, Nicholas de Frainet built a Cistercian abbey where St. Nicholas' remains were buried in 1200. Although
Newtown Jerpoint is deserted, the abbey still stands.
While this theory
seems to be a tactic to draw pilgrims to the area, there is a bit of credibility to the Irish claim. At Jerpoint Abbey
there is a grave slab that seems to depict the body of St. Nicholas and carvings of the heads of two knights, Den and de Frainet,
who stole the relics from Bari.
The Turkish government seems to believe the Italian claims to
possess the elderly bishop's bones. Since 2009, the Turkish Ministry of Culture has repeatedly petitioned the Italian
government and the Vatican for the return of St. Nicholas bones because they were illegally obtained.
Note: Another wrinkle has surfaced in the matter of who has the real bones of St. Nicholas. Below is
a brief summary of a 4 October 2017 article by Jason Daley on Simthsonian.com:
in Turkey believe they may have found the tomb of Saint Nicholas, under a church in the Demre district of Turkey.
As Kareem Shaheen at The Guardian reports, researchers discovered an intact temple and burial
grounds below the Church of St. Nicholas during radar scans and CT surveys of the site. But the researchers have yet
to confirm the find. To access the tomb, they must first remove and preserve valuable mosaics from the church floor,
a process that will take time.
of this recent discovery, Turkish archaeologists now opine that the bones stolen in the 11th century by Italian
sailors likely came from the tomb of an unidentifed priest and that St. Nicholas is still in his original tomb.