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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.


OriginalTomb.jpg
The Original Tomb of St. Nicholas in Myra 



Nicholas died 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. 

The Bari Claim

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.


BariTomb.jpg
 The Tomb of St. Nicholas in Bari



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.

The Venetian Claim

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.


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 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.



IrishTomb.jpg
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.


Editor's 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:

Archaeologists 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.

Because 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.