Text by Gerardo Cioffari, o.p......Translated by Victoria Sportelli
Saint Nicholas is one of the most revered and beloved saints all over the world. Many nations have claimed the Saint and portrayed him as deemed fit. Despite the differences, how-ever, all have unanimously attributed to St. Nicholas the role of protector of the weak, the defenceless and the unjustly accused. The Saint is also worshipped as patron of young maidens on the threshold of marriage, as well as of sea-farers. However, St. Nicholas is best known and celebrated in western countries as the Patron Saint of children.
Patara 260 A.D. (circa)
Birthplace and Childhood of Saint Nicholas
Nicholas was born in the ancient Roman province of Lycia in Asia Minor. Prior to Turkish invasion, this land was predominately of Greek language and culture. Through the ages, however, the great veneration nurtured for Saint Nicholas by the Russian people has lead to the erroneous belief that he was born in Russia. It was even believed that Saint Nicholas was of African origin, as it was once customary in Bari to worship sacred images of the Saint bearing a dark complexion (whence, St. Nicholas the Moor).
Historical documents confirm that Nicholas was born around 260 A.D. in Patara, once a thriving seaport city in the ancient peninsular district of Lycia, in Asia Minor. Saint Paul stopped over in the city during one of his journeys.
At the time of Nicholas’s life, Asia Minor was geographically confined within the domains of the Roman Empire, although the prevailing culture and language in the region was Greek. It was quite natural, hence, to consider Nicholas as being “Greek,” also because his name, Nikòlaos, was of Greek derivation. In ancient Greek, his name meant “victory of the people”, and indeed, it will later be seen how the populace played a significant role in the life of Saint Nicholas.
The little which is known about Nicholas’s family origins can only be extrapolated from accounts of his life episodes (for example, the episode of the dowries he bestowed upon the three young maidens, or his election to Bishop). Although his parents’ names are unbeknownst, it is presumed that they were wealthy and of noble descent. Some hagiographers report their names as being Epiphanius and Nonna (or, at times, also Theophanes and Joanna). These names, however, relate to the parents of a monk named Nicholas who lived in the same region two centuries later (480-556 A.D.). This homonymous Nicholas was born in Farroa and, after becoming Archimandrite of the monastery in Sion, was elected Bishop of Pinara: whence, the name “Nicholas the Sionite” or “Nicholas of Pinara”.
With regard to Nicholas from Patara, better known as Saint Nicholas of Bari, much of his childhood remains a mystery. Even ancient historical sources fail to provide information. The first to mention his birthplace was a Greek monk by the name of Michael the Archimandrite who, in the VIII century, wrote that Nicholas had been predestined to sanctity from the time he nestled in his mother’s womb. Indeed, it would appear that Nicholas embodied the spiritual characteristics expected of those intending to embrace an ecclesiastic life from very early in life.
Furthermore, it seems that Saint Nicholas’s habits of fasting and penitence were also predestined as can be understood from the account of his unusual suckling behaviour. Indeed, the Greek monk Michael recounts that, as a newborn, Nicholas would suckle from his mother’s breasts every day at regular intervals, with the exception of Wednesdays and Fridays. Oddly enough, on those days, Nicholas would suckle only once. Unknowingly, therefore, the infant Nicholas was already respecting the rules established by the Church with regard to fasting on Wednesday and Friday.
As the young boy Nicholas grew, he began to show clear signs of virtue and, in particular, of charity. He would often shy away from playing with other children and, instead, would dedicate himself to religious teachings. As he was also quite chaste, he would eschew the companionship of young girls.
Dowry for the Young Maidens
Charity and chastity formed the foundations of the life of St. Nicholas. These virtues are clearly depicted in the most well-known episode concerning the dowry the Saint bestowed upon three poor maidens who would otherwise have been doomed to prostitution. This life-episode has inspired many artists striving to identify a symbol to characterize Saint Nicholas and differentiate him from other bishops sanctified in ancient times. Indeed, in observing paintings, statues or sculptures of a bishop it is not uncommon to mistake one for another (e.g. Blaise, Basil, Gregory, Ambrose, Augustine, etc.) Although similar mistakes also occur in some texts of great artistic value, they do not occur when identifying Saint Nicholas because any devout follower is able to distinguish St. Nicholas among all other Bishops by way of an inconfutible symbol: three gold balls. A Bishop portrayed with three gold balls, whether held in his hand or lain at his feet, is without doubt, St. Nicholas. By way of an artistic deformation, the three gold balls represent the three bags of gold coins around which the story of the plight of the three, young, maidens is centred.
The story unfolds in the city of Patara or, more likely, in Myra, about one hundred kilometres from Patara where Nicholas had moved to with his family. According to some accounts, Nicholas’s parents were no longer alive at the time of this episode, and Nicholas, in the meantime, had grown into a young man full of hope and economic means. According to other accounts, his parents were alive and Nicholas was still economically dependent. Regardless of the truth, Nicholas learned of a family in dire need.
The townspeople told of a man who had fallen into the despair of poverty and had resolved to deliver his three maiden daughters to prostitution to gain money for their dowry.
When Nicholas heard of this desperate father’s intent, he decided to intervene according to the evangelic teaching: shall your left hand not know what your right hand is doing. In other words, he determined to accomplish a good deed without receiving acknowledgement. God was to be the sole witness of Nicholas’s good deed for, if witnessed and praised by fellow men, the good deed would lose its value.
Therefore, Nicholas resolved to act in the still of the night. He gathered together some gold coins and tied them inside a piece of cloth. Then, he headed for the home of the three unhappy maidens.
As Nicholas approached the maidens’ window, he stretched his hand through the iron bars and tossed the small pouch of coins in-side. It landed on the floor and the thump attracted the father’s attention. When he rushed into the maidens’ room, he discovered the bag full of money. At first, he was dumbfounded, but then his heart burst with joy as he could finally provide a dowry to marry off his eldest daughter.
One can imagine the father’s elation in receiving the money. Nevertheless, he was curious to unveil the anonymous benefactor, so, he darted out of the house in search of him.
Unfortunately, his attempt to unmask the mysterious gift-giver failed for Nicholas had fled off into the night.
Nicholas was pleased in seeing that the father had made proper use of the money received and, thus, decided to repeat the good deed. Indeed, some time later, in the midst of the night, Nicholas tossed another bag full of gold coins through the window. Once again, the father was able to procure a dowry to happily marry off his second daughter.
Suspecting and predicting that the mysterious benefactor would act a third time to save the youngest daughter from misery, and eager to unveil the identity of the man who had saved his reputation and redeemed his honour, the father kept watch night after night. Finally, one night, while desperately trying to keep awake, the father heard the all too familiar thump of a third pouch of jingling coins drop onto the floor. The man pounced to the window and, before Nicholas could disappear out of sight, the man began to chase after him. When the father caught up with the mysterious disburser of money, he recognized his redeemer and saviour; it was Nicholas! Nicholas, however, fearful that his identity had been unmasked, swore the man to eternal secrecy, but judging by the course of events, it is very likely that the father broke his oath. Therefrom, word that Nicholas was a great charitable man spread even more throughout the streets of Myra.
Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
Mathew, The Gospel, VI, v. 2-4
He furthermore was speaking of the largess
Which Nicholas unto the maidens gave,
In order to conduct their youth to honour.
Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy, Purgatory,
Chant XX, v. 31-33
Reply to Objection 4. He that is unaware of a favor conferred on him is not ungrateful, if he fails to repay it, provided he be prepared to do so if he knew. It is nevertheless commendable at times that the object of a favor should remain ignorance of it, both in order to avoid vainglory, as when Blessed Nicolas threw gold into a house secretly, wishing to avoid popularity: and because the kindness is all the greater through the benefactor wishing not to shame the person on whom he is conferring the favour.
Summa Theologica, Secunda Secundae, Question 107, Article 3
Nicholas: Layman Turns Bishop
(295 A.D., circa)
Around the year 300 A.D., Christianity had not yet been legally recognized within the Roman Empire and official Christian places of worship did not exist. However, Christians assembled under the evangelic teachings and formed reasonably-sized organized communities. Christians would gather in the homes of aristocrats who had embraced the new faith: these homes came to be called domus ecclesiae or house of the community. Indeed, the word church denoted a Christian community. This community participated actively in the election of Bishops, that is, of the older men dedicated to controlling, managing and expanding the community in terms of faith and action. These key figures became heads of the community and representatives in councils. The latter consisted in assemblies geared towards analyzing and solving problems, and adapting laws to suit Christian beliefs and needs in the provinces.
Men who devoted themselves to the well-being of the community were usually elected and appointed as presbyters (i.e. priests). The Bishop would lay his hands over these priests and endow them with the right to celebrate the Eucharist. In this manner, they were distinguished from the laymen. However, it would sometimes occur that the man elected was not a Presbyter, but rather a layman: such was the case for Nicholas. Although this did not infer he was automatically granted an episcopal throne, it did mean that he was conferred, within just a few days, the various sacred orders which opened the way to becoming a clergyman and, afterwards, Bishop.
The sacred biographer Michael the Archimandrite narrates that the election of Nicholas was shrouded in a miraculous aura. The story holds that upon the death of the Bishop of Myra, the bishops from the neighbouring regions were summoned. They assembled in a domus ecclesiae to nominate the successor, in other words, the new Bishop of the city of Myra. That night, one of the most prominent amongst the bishops was inspired in a dream. He was counselled that the first man to enter the church the following morning at the crack of dawn, was to be proclaimed and consecrated as Bishop. The name of this young man was Nicholas.
The other bishops took heed of this nocturnal vision and, perceiving that the proclaimed man was destined to accomplish great deeds, spent the entire night in earnest prayer. At dawn, the church doors opened wide and in strode Nicholas. The bishop who had had the dream approached the young man and asked his name. Nicholas was led among the others, thereto assembled, and presented to them. The bishops all agreed that, without further ado, Nicholas was to be elected and consecrated as the new Bishop of Myra.
However, in light of the fact that the towns-people always participated in the election of their bishop, this account would appear somewhat tainted. Nevertheless, it must be borne in mind that the hagiographer wrote in an era when bishops were ordained after being clergymen. In this version of the episode, the hagiographer underlines two main concepts: first, that Nicholas went from being a simple layman directly to being proclaimed bishop, and, second, that his election was not the result of human accord, but a demonstration of God’s will.
The Persecution by Diocletian
In 303 A.D., the Emperor Diocletian announced the end of tolerance and instigated a fierce persecution of the Christians that prolonged for about ten years, and was characterized by alternating moments of extreme cruelty and standstills. In 313, in Milan, the Emperors Constantine and Licinius agreed upon the division of the geographical areas they were to govern; the first was granted the western hemisphere, while the latter the eastern one. In addition, they issued an edict granting freedom of Christian cult. Six years later (319), in opposition to Constantine’s philochristian policy, Licinius reinstated the persecution against Christians.
Ancient historical sources (prior to the IX century) regarding the life of St. Nicholas do not mention any persecution. However, considering the fact that Methodius, Bishop of Patara, had to face his death courageously, it can be assumed that St. Nicholas was probably incarcerated and endured other sufferings, such as watching his flock afflicted by many pains and anguish.
Some writers, such as Metaphrastes in about 960 A.D., recount that Nicholas suffered under the persecution of Diocletian and was cast into prison. It appears that the Holy Bishop morally supported and encouraged his faithful followers to endure in their faith and not succumb to or fawn on the gods. For this reason, Nicholas was sent into exile by the President of the Province. Other writers claim that Nicholas was persecuted under the rule of Licinius, rather than that of Diocletian. This transposition of the date of Nicholas’s persecution was probably devised to avoid its coinciding with Nicholas’s Bishopry which, according to them, occurred between 308 and 314.
To enhance both the idea of Nicholas’s martyrdom as well as the signs of bodily torture, the Byzantine historian Nicephorus Kallistos wrote:
At the Council of Nicaea, many shone with apostolic gifts. Not few, for having persisted in professing their faith, still showed the wounds and scars in their flesh, and especially among the Bishops, such as Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, Pafnutius and others.
The Council at Nicaea
In keeping with his policy in favour of the Christians, the Emperor Constantine issued an edict on June 23rd, 318 A.D. granting those condemned under the normal magistracy to appeal to the Bishop. However, while the Church was taking similar measures to consolidate its ground among the pagan communities, a theological dispute arose concerning the divine nature of Jesus Christ as the Son of God (that is, whether Jesus is of the same nature with the Father or, being a creature, was elevated to divine nature afterwards by the Father).
The dispute transformed into a fierce controversy dividing the Empire into two opposing factions. The schism had been rashly provoked by Arius, an Alexandrian priest and peer of Nicholas. To resolve the dispute, restore peace and safeguard the unity of the empire and the church, Constantine convened a general assembly of Bishops (Council) at Nicaea in 325: the First Ecumenical Council.
The geographic position of Nicaea in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) impeded many western bishops from participating in the Council, whereas almost all of the eastern bishops attended. The actual presence of Nicholas in this very first and very important ecumenical council is questioned as his name, together with that of St. Pafnutius, does not appear in many Lists. However, it does appear in the List compiled by Theodore the Lector in around 515 A.D. which Eduard Schwartz, a major expert in the Lists of ancient Councils, reputes to be authentic.
One of the best-known prayers in eastern liturgy is dedicated to Nicholas and reads as follows:
Oh, Holy Bishop Nicholas, thou who hast through thy deeds shown thyself to thy flock as a rule of faith (kanona pisteos) and as a model of meekness and temperance, thou who hast with thy humility reached sublime glory and with thy love for poverty, gained heavenly riches, intercede with the Lord Saviour Jesus Christ to obtain the salvation of our souls.
This ancient prayer alludes to the role played by Nicholas at the Council at Nicaea. Although historical documentations of the events at Nicaea are lacking, they are, to some extent, compensated by the stories narrated about the Council. The best-known is that of the brick (in truth, also attributed to St. Spiridion). The Council had been called because Arius affirmed that recognizing the divinity of Christ brought to deny the oneness of God. Nicholas, taking into consideration the baptismal formula which also included the Holy Spirit, endeavoured to demonstrate how the Trinity could co-exist as a Unity. To do so, Nicholas picked up a brick and, while holding it up in his hand, reminded the bishops present at the Council of its triple composition of earth, water and fire. This was to signify that the divinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit did not contrast nor mar the fundamental truth that God is one. In the midst of this demonstration of the truth, the brick burst into flames and droplets of water fell to the ground… all that remained was a handful of dry dust. The miracle proved the righteousness of his argument.
Better-known is the popular legend of the slap in the face given to Arius by Nicholas. This account is connected to the custom of artists of painting Christ and the Virgin in the upper corners whereby Christ is handing over the Gospel and the Virgin the stole (omophorion). The story narrates that Nicholas, sparked by holy zeal in hearing Arius’s blasphemies of denying Christ’s divine nature, raised his right hand and slapped Arius in the face. When Constantine learned of the episode, he had Nicholas cast into prison, while the bishops deprived Nicholas of his bishop’s robes. While in prison, Nicholas was repeatedly insulted and mocked by the guards. One of them even burnt Nicholas’s beard. One night, Jesus and the Virgin Mary appeared before Nicholas and bestowed unto him the Gospel, symbol of episcopal teaching, and the stole, symbol of sacramental ministry. While Nicholas was preparing to celebrate mass, he was spurred by a spirit of humility and, so, chose not to wear his bishop’s robes. However, just as he was about to pronounce the first words, the Virgin Mary with the stole and the angels with the mitre came down to him from heaven. Then, as soon as the liturgical function was over, the beard which the gaol-keepers had burnt off the night before grew back thick.
These, however, are all legends, and, apart from his participation in that Council (documented by Theodore the Lector and five Lists of the VII-VIII centuries), nothing is known about Nicholas’s deeds during the Council. In any case, what is certain is that Nicholas must have sided with Athanasius and the orthodox, otherwise in the liturgy he would not have been called rule of faith.
A MORE PRECISE INFORMATION
ST. NICHOLAS’S NAME
IN THE LISTS OF THE FATHERS
OF THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA
Contrary to what is generally stated by many writers, St. Nicholas’s name does appear in the Lists of the Fathers who participated in the great assembly held in 325 AD in the city of Nicaea (Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey). Those who deny it base their opinion on what was affirmed a century ago by the major expert in St Nicholas’s Greek Texts, the German scholar Gustav Anrich, who drew a negative conclusion from the doubts raised by Gelzer, Hilgenfeld and Cuntz. However, Anrich was the most prominent expert on St Nicholas, not on the Lists of the participants in that Council. Other eminent scholars, such as Benesevic, Lebedev, Leclercq, Honigmann, and above all Eduard Schwartz have a different opinion.
No original List of the participants in the First Ecumenical Council has reached us. Out of the 16 Lists analysed by the author, St. Nicholas’s name is missing in the following:
1. List of 221 names; 2. Alexandrian Reworking of 225 names; 3. Corpus Canonum of Antioch (before 381 AD); 4-8. Latin Lists I, II, III, IV and V; 9. Syriac List of the year 501; 10. Coptic List of 162 names.
On the other hand, St. Nicholas’s name is present in the following:
1. Historia Tripartita, by Theodore the Lector (515 c.); 2. Vat. Gr, saec. XIV; 3. Sinaiticus 1117; 4. Hierosolymitanus Metoch. 2; 5. Hierosolimitanus Patr. 167; 6. Arabicus, saec. XIV.
St. Nicholas (like many other central figures at the Council) has been omitted in the Lists containing roughly 200 names, while it has been included in the Lists with more than 300 names. Since the Lists containing 300 names are those best supported by the most authoritative historical works of the time, they must be considered the most reliable. The name of Nicholas appears in the List of Theodore the Lector, not much appreciated by Gelzer and Anrich because the manuscript was written many centuries later (XIII century). On the contrary, Eduard Schwartz (the most prominent expert) considers this List authentic. It is also important to remember the fact that Theodore, being Lector in the Great Church of Constantinople, was in the best position to access and know the original documents. Therefore, there can be no reasonable doubt about the presence of Saint Nicholas in the Council of Nicaea.
Nicholas Converts the Heretic Theognis
Chroniclers of the time probably opted to not write about Nicholas’s role in the Council at Nicaea as his stand contrasted with that assumed by the head of the Catholic orthodox party, Athanasius of Alexandria. Although Nicholas was equally adamant in his beliefs, he was, nevertheless, particularly sensitive to the restoration of peace and unity within the Church. Unlike Athanasius, Nicholas did not limit himself to merely defending the faith incessantly. Instead, he attempted with all his might and vigour to recuperate the heretics and guide them back to the bosom of the church. Athanasius must have deemed Nicholas’s behaviour too inclined towards compromise and, consequently, unworthy of being remem-bered among the defenders of the faith.
This “damnatio memoriae” exercised by Athanasius (who, nevertheless, mentions many bishops) may be explained by the fact that Nicholas was most certainly a political supporter of the opposing “party”. Indeed, while Athanasius described Ablavius, Prefect of Constantine, as “beloved by God”, the ancient St. Nicholas biographer defines him as “perverse and wicked” (an opinion shared by the great historian Eusebius of Caesarea, together with all the pagan historians). This behaviour should not astound as, even in modern times, very dignified people are known to take opposing political stands.
The fact that St. Nicholas embodied both a great love for the just faith as well as a great love for harmony within the Church, can be witnessed in the writings of St. Andrew of Crete:
As hath been recounted, reviewing the shoots of the true vine, thou didst encounter Theognis, of pious mind, at the time, Bishop of the Church of the Marcionites. The dispute didst continue in epistolary manner till thou didst convert and redeem him to the orthodoxy. However, since some bitterness didst arise betweenst the both of you, with thy sublime voice thou didst quote the Apostle’s saying: “Cometh, let us be reconciled, oh brother, before the sun setteth on our wrath”.
Regardless of the reference to Marcionites, Theognis was almost certainly the Bishop of Nicaea at the time of the Council, hitherto reported.
Although Theognis was a supporter of the heretic Arius, he was eventually convinced, and signed the Acts of the Council that condemned Arius. Nicholas had most likely encountered him previously and, hence, played a crucial role in the signing of the acts. In truth, Theognis’s attitude towards Athanasius, who continued to fight his opposition fiercely, remained substantially unaltered. Upon his return following a three-year exile in Gaul, Theognis continued to criticize the term “consubstantial” which Athanasius and the Church used to define the relationship between the Father and the Son. In 336 A.D., Theognis contributed to banishing St. Athanasius into exile.
It is all too common for supporters of the just faith to divide into opposing “parties,” and ancient Christianity was no exception to this rule. Indeed, the schism brought about contrasting opinions even on the spiritual plane.
Contrasting opinions were commonplace. Theognis, for example, was considered of “saintly mind” by St. Andrew of Crete and a heretic by others. Another example is the case of Theodoretus (Church historian), considered a heresiarch by the Greek church and a “blessed” (blazhennyj) by the Russian church. Not to mention the patriarch Anastasius (729-752), considered an iconoclast by the Latin church and of “saintly mind” by the Greek church after he repented when saved from drowning by the very St. Nicholas (This story will be recounted later on).
Nicholas Destroys the Temple of Diana
Constantine had conceded ample freedom to pagan cult, but needless to say, after 318 AD, with the advent of Bishops’ judicial power, the Christians enjoyed special privileges within the Empire. At the time, many Bishops, and apparently Nicholas, as well, were earnestly engaged in eradicating all signs of pagan religion from their cities, often even destroying temples.
Tradition portrays Nicholas as an ardent advocate of this cause. St. Andrew of Crete, in his famous “Enco-mium of St. Nicholas”, addresses the Saint with the exclamation:
You have, indeed, cleared all the spiritual fields in the province of Lycia, eradicating the thorns of disbelief. With your teachings, you have knocked down altars of idols and places of abominable demon cult and, in their stead, erected Christ Churches.
Michael the Archi-mandrite supports Andrew’s text. However, instead of reporting Nicholas’s words and teachings as metaphoric arms, he “concretizes” the Saint’s endeavours by referring to actual iron bars used to knock down the temple of Diana, which stood imposing. This temple was believed to be the most important of all temples, not only because of its height and decorative variety, but also because of the demons it housed.
Michael the Archimandrite shows clear knowledge of the importance of the temple of Diana. This demonstrates that his documentation must have derived from direct Myrian sources.
Recent archaeological finds have shed ulterior light on the history of the temple of Diana. Indeed, the findings show that, in 141, the temple had been restored and enlarged by the Lycian mecenate Opramoas of Rhodiapolis. This confirms that the version narrated by the monk Michael coincides with the stories recounted in Myra in the VIII century.
However, the version offered by Andrew of Crete, whereby Nicholas arms himself with words to destroy paganism, is most likely closer to the truth. Nonetheless, given the Bishop of Myra’s dynamic and resolute character (demonstrated in various episodes), the Archimandrite’s version of the episode cannot be completely discarded. However, both versions make reference to the popular belief that demons inhabited these pagan temples and, that when the latter were destroyed, the demons were left homeless and forced to find another dwelling place.
Nicholas Secures Wheat for His People
The Bishop Saint was not only engaged in spreading the evangelic truth, but also in struggling to meet the dire needs of the poor and the hungry. The Saint’s profession of faith was enforced by true acts of charity.
During his Bishopry, a terrible famine struck the population of Myra and Nicholas made various efforts to help his flock. Echoes of his deeds resonated throughout the centuries, remaining always vivid in the memories of the Myrians. One legend tells of how Nicholas, appearing in a dream before some Sicilian merchants, suggested that they sail to the city of Myra to sell their wheat, adding that he would leave them a monetary deposit. The following morning, the merchants discovered that they had had the same vision. Then, when they actually found the promised deposit, they immediately set sail for Myra and supplied the population with wheat.
Another episode regarding the wheat-laden ships on sail from Alexandria in Egypt is even better known. When Nicholas heard that the ships havened in the port of Myra, he quickly jumped aboard one of them and begged the captain to unload some wheat. The captain refused, explaining that it was impossible since the entire load, destined for the Emperor, had been weighed, and if any shortage had been discovered, he would have been in severe trouble. Nicholas accepted to take on all the responsibility and, so, managed to convince the captain. The cargo of wheat was unloaded and the population was saved. The people could finally bake the bread necessary to feed themselves and, after ploughing the land, were also able to sow the leftover wheat seeds. In this way, they ensured a good harvest for the years to come. When the “Alexandrine” ships reached Constantinople, they had to undergo a weight check, just as the captain had feared. However, much to his surprise and joy, he found that the weight of the cargo had not decreased. On the contrary, it actually weighed the same as when the ship had set sail from Alexandria.
This miracle episode was the source of inspiration for many painters and popular traditions connected to the bread of St. Nicholas and his patronage of peasants. Indeed, to date, pilgrims who travel to Bari in the month of May are given “wreaths” of taralli (large ring-shaped dry bread, easy to take back home).
Nicholas Saves Three Innocent Men from Beheading
Prior to the VIII-IX century, the “stories” hereto narrated were simply handed down from generation to generation by the Myrians, in respect of the oral tradition. Consequently, many historical connotations were lost and, often, the events became mere traditions or legends. The names of the main characters in the accounts virtually all vanished. Some hagiographers do report the names of Nicholas’s parents, his uncle the Archimandrite, and his predecessor on the throne in Myra as well as the boatswain who had supposedly led Nicholas as a pilgrim to Egypt and the Holy Land, and other similar stories. None, how-ever, refer to the life of the Nicholas in question. Unfortunately, with the exception of reference to the Council at Nicaea and the Bishop Theognis, no other names or incidences appear in the life of the Saint prior to the story of the three innocent men who Nicholas saved from beheading.
This account, together with that of the Byzantine high commanding officials (Praxis de stratelatis), constitutes the documentary foundations of the life of Nicholas.
In ancient times, this story was called Praxis tou agiou Nikolaou (History of St. Nicholas), rather than Praxis de stratelatis (The story of the Commanders), to emphasize that this was considered by far the most important of all the stories regarding the life of St. Nicholas.
Once, while some military ships were harboured in the port of Myra, some riots broke out in the nearby marketplace of Placoma. The riots had, to some extent, been provoked by the soldiers on shore-leave who had been venting off accumulated tension and bitterness. While the city was in turmoil, Nicholas was engaged in a conversation with the commanding officers Nepotianus, Ursus and Erpileon who were elucidating the imminent military expedition against the Taiphales, a gothic tribe which was creating unrest and dissension in Frygia. St. Nicholas asked the commanders to intervene and restore peace in the city. In the midst of the turmoil, some citizens rushed to the Bishop and informed him that Eustathius the Praeses had sentenced three innocent men to death.
On hearing the news, Nicholas and the commanders hastened to Myra to a place called Leonti, but they were told the prisoners had been taken to a place called Dioscorus. Thus, Nicholas made his way to the church of the martyr saints Crescentius and Dioscorus. When he arrived, he learned that the prisoners had been taken to Berra, the place where condemned prisoners were usually beheaded. Nicholas was aware that only he, as Bishop, had the full authority to impede the execution. Therefore, he hastened to Berra where he broke through the crowd, assembled before the men about to be beheaded. The executioner was holding up his sword and the three innocent men were kneeling in the execution position with their head on a tree stump. Nicholas erupted onto the scene and grasped the sword from the executioner.
Nicholas saved the men from decapitation and freed them from bondage. Then, he marched down to the Pretorium and barged into the building where Eustathius presided. St. Nicholas did not spare him accusations of injustice, violence and corruption and threatened to report the episode to the Emperor Constantine. In vain, Eustathius tried to defend himself by placing the blame on two notables of Myra: Simonis and Eudossius. Nicholas made no effort to contest the excuse, but merely accused him once again of corruption. Then, making a witty pun, Nicholas claimed that neither Simonis nor Eudossius were to blame, sustaining that Chrysaph (gold) and Argyros (silver) had been the ones to corrupt him. Having thus proven the truth and restored justice, Nicholas spared Eustathius further accusations and granted him pardon.
The Commanders Freed from Prison
The three army commanders, hence, edified by the Bishop, took to the sea once again and reached Frygia where they succeeded in suppressing the forces which had rebelled against the Emperor. Due to the successful military action and to the fact that Nepotianus was related to the Emperor, the commanders’ return to Constan-tinople was welcomed and celebrated as a true triumph. However, the glory and the honours were short-lived as, it is known, similar situations are often tainted by negative feelings of jealousy and envy.
The hagiographers speak of evil instigations instilled by the devil. Nonetheless, an opposition party soon formed against Nepotianus and his companions. The members of this party succeeded in manipulating the mighty prefect Ablabius who convinced the Emperor that the three generals were conspiring to overthrow him from the throne. However, as Constantine was not completely convinced of the truth and reliability of the news, he preferred not to incur any risks and, so, had the three commanders imprisoned. A few months later, Ablabius, corrupted by some enemies of the prisoners, convinced the Emperor that followers of Nepotianus were organizing their liberation. Indeed, Constantine sentenced the commanders to death that very night.
On hearing this, the warden Ilarion rushed off to warn the army officials, overtaken by deep despair. Feeling that death would soon be upon him, Nepotianus recalled the time when Bishop Nicholas’s intervention “in extremis” saved the life of three innocent men. To the same avail, he cried out a prayer to the Lord:
Dear Lord, God of Thy servant Nicholas, we beggeth Thee to take pity upon us through Thy divine mercy and intercession of Thy servant Nicholas. As Thou didst, through Thy servant, when Thou didst save the lives of three innocent men, so redeemeth our lives, moved by the mercy and intercession of this Holy Bishop.
The Lord answered Nepotianus’s and his companions’ prayer. That very night, St. Nicholas appeared before the Emperor in his sleep and, threateningly, pronounced these words:
Constantine, rise and free the three commanders thou keep as captives, as they have been unjustly accused. If thou shall not, then I shall confer with the Lord Jesus Christ, King of all kings, and instigate a revolt against thee and then offer thy remains to wild beasts and scavengers.
Terrified to death, Constantine asked the vision to come forth and identify himself:
I am Nicholas, a sinful bishop, and I live in the metropolis of Myra in Lycia.
That night, Nicholas threatened Ablabius as well, and when the Emperor summoned the Prefect, they both believed they had been involved in a mysterious act of magic. They ordered the three army officials to be led in, and demanded an explanation from them. When the suspicion of “magic” came up in the interrogation, Constantine asked Nepotianus if he was familiar with the name Nicholas. Nepotianus’s heart lifted, as he realised his prayer had been heard and answered. He explained everything to the Emperor who immediately had them liberated. Moreover, the Emperor ordered them to go to Myra to thank the Holy Bishop, and, on his behalf, to bear the Bishop precious gifts, including a Holy Gospel completely decorated in gold and some golden candelabra. Some accounts report that upon reaching Myra, the three men cut their hair as a sign of gratitude and devotion to the Saint.
It is difficult to discern between the truth and what may have been the fruit of the fantasy of a population aware of the presence of a “precursor” and defender. Nicholas was considered and esteemed by the Myrians as the bearer of the true faith, justice and welfare of their city. For this reason, as documented both in Vita Nicolai Sionitae and in the Encomium written by St. Andrew of Crete, the Myrians instituted the liturgical feast called “Rosaliae of our progenitor St. Nicholas.”
Among the Holy Bishop’s many good deeds, it used to be recounted, around the VII century that Nicholas interceded to obtain a tax reduction in favour of his people in Myra (Praxis de tributo).
Constantine’s tendency to impose heavy taxes on the citizens throughout his empire is well-known to historians. Zosimos, for instance, blamed the heavy tributary policy on Constantine’s extravagance. The anonymous author of Epitome de Caesaribus describes Constantine’s taxation policy in this way:
Excellent, for the first ten years, a plunder, for the following twelve years, and in the last ten years, he was defined as incompetent, due to his extravagant lavishings.
When the city of Myra was faced with having to pay exorbitant taxes, the people’s representatives begged Nicholas to intervene by writing to the Emperor. Nicholas’s actions went beyond their simple request. Indeed, he hastened to Constantinople where he asked to be officially received by the Emperor. At this point in the story, the anonymous author, ignoring the fact that Nicholas lived during the reign of Constantine, embellishes the episode. He recounts that Nicholas’s fellow Bishops in the capital city assembled at the temple of the Mother of God in the Blachernes to pay homage to Nicholas and to ask for his blessings. Not only would a similar reception by the Bishops have been utterly unfathomable, but the temple mentioned was, in reality, built a century after the death of the Saint.
This historical embellishment also occurs in the description of Constantine’s arrival. It is written that, before the conversation began, the Emperor tossed his mantle and, crossing the path of a ray of sunlight, it remained suspended in mid air. This wonder caused the Emperor to become both fearful and benevolent. Therefore, when it came time for Nicholas to elucidate the hardships endured by the Myrians as a result of the taxes imposed, and to plead that they be reduced significantly, the Emperor immediately summoned his notary official and head registrar Theodosius and, in accordance with Nicholas’s request, had the taxes reduced to only one hundred dinars.
Nicholas took the document on which this concession had been granted and signed, secured it to a staff and then tossed it into the sea. God’s will made the staff float into the city port in Myra and come into the hands of the tax officers who, albeit surprised by the contents of the document, promptly applied the concession. In the meanwhile, however, Constantine’s councillors in Constantinople argued that the tax reduction had maybe been a little excessive. Hence, the Emperor summoned Nicholas to correct the concession and increase the taxes the Myrians had to pay. Nicholas, however, replied that it was no longer possible as the document had reached Myra three days previously. Constantine believed this to be impossible and, so, promised to uphold his former decision if what Nicholas sustained was true. The Emperor sent his envoys to Myra where they were able to ascertain Nicholas’s version. Thus, the Emperor Constantine maintained his promise and confirmed the concession regarding the tax reduction.
The Church in Myra and the Pilgrims’ Journey
The Saint’s Death
One of the last episodes regarding the Life of Nicholas (Thauma de Artemide) depicts a miracle that unfolds amidst popular beliefs. At the time of Constantine, the people strongly believed in the powers of magic and that pagan gods and idols were demonic incarnations. The miracle episode revolves around the latter beliefs, and highlights how the Saint safeguarded those who organized pilgrimages to his church in Myra during his lifetime.
It is recounted that after Nicholas destroyed the temple of Diana-Artemis, the goddess, or better yet, the demon which had incarnated her, decided to take vengeance on the Holy Bishop by damaging the church in which he preached. In the guise of an old pilgrim woman, the demon approached a ship ready to set sail for Myra. She turned to a pilgrim who was about to board the ship and handed him a small flask of oil. She lamented that as she was too old and weak to travel to Myra with them, she begged the man to do her a favour when he reached the church of St. Nicholas. Indeed, she asked him to splash the oil in the flask all over the church walls and on the candles.
The ship set sail for Myra. At a certain point, Nicholas explained to the pilgrims that the flask of oil was not a true token of devotion, but rather an evil artifice designed by the devil, the very same devil he had driven out of the temple of Diana. He suggested to the pilgrim to cast the flask of oil into the sea. The man obeyed and, suddenly, the waves in the sea began to ruffle increasingly until a violent storm broke out and gigantic flames shot out of the waves. Nicholas, however, could not allow his devoted pilgrims to perish and, so, he interceded and appeased the tempest. The message which resonated was clear: Nicholas’s church in Myra was impregnable, even by the demons!
The church in Myra was involved in a further episode (Praxis de nautis). The story holds that while some seafarers were sailing towards the southern coast of Asia Minor, a mighty storm arose, exposing them to great peril. Thus, the seafarers began to pray earnestly to invoke the intercession of St. Nicholas. The Saint heard their prayers and appeared before them:
Alas, you hath summoned me, and I hath hastened to your rescue.
Nicholas began to hoist the hawser, pull the ropes and manoeuvre the mooring post, until he managed to straighten the ship. Then, he quieted the tempest and, finally, led the seafarers safe and sound into a seaport. Once the ship had been moored, Nicholas disappeared. The seafarers, however, decided to go to the nearby church to pay their homage. When they entered the church, at first they did not recognize Nicholas, standing among other priests, as he was not dressed in his bishop’s robes. However, when, at last, they did recognize him, they dropped on their knees before him and offered their sincerest, most heart-felt gratitude. Nicholas spoke to them, exhorting them not to succumb to sin, and to lead a life of virtue.
Although the faithful made pilgrimages to visit the Saint while he was still in life (as was done in our times with Father Pius-Padre Pio), it is difficult to say to what extent tradition has modified the truth. Nonetheless, St. Nicholas died shortly after the episodes hitherto recounted.
According to tradition, Nicholas was already quite elderly when he participated in the Council at Nicaea, meaning that he most probably died around 335 A.D. As with his birth, nothing is known about Nicholas’s death. The episodes and details recounted in some “Vitae” do not, unfortunately, deal with our St. Nicholas, but rather with the holy monk Nicholas, who lived in the same region two centuries later.