St. Nicholas of Bari. The Translation
Saint Nicholas is known by various names: Nicholas, Nick, Klaus, Niccolò, Nicolò, Nicolao, Bishop, Bishop of Myra, the Great, and, of course, Nicholas of Bari. Whichever the name used, the reference is always, and, in any case, to Saint Nicholas whose life has been hitherto recounted. Needless to say, many other saints named Nicholas are venerated both in the East (in the Greek and Russian churches) and in the West (i.e. St. Nicholas the Pilgrim, patron saint of Trani; St. Nicholas of Tolentino, patron saint of numerous townships throughout central Italy; St. Nicholas of Flüe, and, so forth). However, ninety percent of the times, “St. Nicholas” refers to St. Nicholas of Myra who later became St. Nicholas of Bari (after the relics of the Bishop of Myra were translated to Bari in 1087, and have, ever since, been safeguarded in this city).
It appears that Nicholas, born in Patara, and Bishop of Myra in ancient Lycia, never ventured outside of Asia Minor. Stories of journeys and pilgrimages to Palestine, Jerusalem and Egypt made by “Nicholas” refer to the monk who lived two centuries after St. Nicholas. The journey made to Rome to visit Pope Silvester was perhaps created by western writers who re-elaborated the story of a journey described in the Greek “novel” (Periodoi Nikolaou, St. Nicholas’s Travels). Consequently, the story of the Saint’s passage through the city of Bari belongs to the world of fiction.
The idea of translating the relics of St. Nicholas was proposed by the inhabitants of Bari as an effort to restore prestige to the city. In 1071, following Norman conquest, the city of Bari was forced to relinquish its role as the seat of the Byzantine Catapan and, therefore, also its role as the capital of the Byzantine Province of Southern Italy.
At the time, cities which possessed the relics of important saints not only were invested with a spiritual blessing, but also became pilgrimage centres which led to economic prosperity.
About one hundred years prior to the translation of the Saint’s relics to Bari, “Nicholas” was the most common male name in Bari, second only to the name “John”.
Inspired by the Venetians who had their Saint Mark, by the citizens of Benevento who had their St. Bartholomew, and, by those of Amalfi who had their St. Andrew, the citizens of Bari purposed to offer the relics of a famous saint to their beloved city. The choice fell upon St. Nicholas not only because he was popular, but also because the Saint’s relics lay en route to the city of Antioch in Syria where the merchants of Bari very frequently sailed to sell their cereals and purchase fabrics.
Hence, during a return voyage from Antioch where they had concluded commercial trades, the Barian merchants and sailors (at least 62) anticipated the Venetians’ design to take away the relics of St. Nicholas, and moored in the inlet of Andriake, the ancient seaport of Myra. The Barians dispatched forty-seven men to the church of St. Nicholas, less than one kilometre from the city of Myra.
The Barians disguised themselves as pilgrims and, thus, were able to conceal swords and other weapons under their mantles. The monks who were entrusted with watching over the Saint’s body guided them to the Saint’s burial place. However, the monks soon understood that the Barians intended to steal the relics, and so, one of the monks attempted to run off to warn the Myrians, but he was thwarted at the church door by the Barians.
Not without hesitation, two young men (Matthew, a Barian, and Alexander, a Frenchman) forced open the slab of marble that covered the sarcophagus and lifted out the bones of St. Nicholas which were virtually floating in the sacred “manna”. Then, Matthew and Alexander handed the bones to the two ship priests, Lupus and Grimoaldus, and the bones were carried away to the ship accompanied by a subdued chanting. The townspeople of Myra were eventually warned by the monks, but when they arrived at the port, the ship was already taking to the open sea.
At the beginning, the sea-crossing was rough due to the adverse sea conditions, but, then, a favourable breeze allowed the three ships to reach the seaport in Bari on May 9th, 1087. On that day, the city authorities, Duke Roger Borsa and Prince Bohemund, were in Rome for the coronation of Pope Victor III. Consequently, the sailors delivered the holy relics of Saint Nicholas into the hands of Elias, Abbot of the Monastery of St. Benedict. Two days later, the Archbishop Ursus, while en route from Canosa to Trani (to set sail for the Holy Land), learned about St. Nicholas’s translation and so decided to come to Bari.
The Archbishop decided the holy relics were to be safeguarded in the cathedral, and sent his armed guards to collect them straightaway. The townspeople, however, were determined to defend the holy bones in order to dedicate a church to the Saint which was worthy of his holiness and fame. The people’s guards came into opposition with the Bishop’s soldiers and a hard-fought battle ensued; many were wounded and two or three young men lost their lives. Before more lives were lost, the Abbot Elias managed to convince the Archbishop to renounce to his intentions and to donate the Catapan court site for the construction of the new temple. Worthy of both the townspeople’s and Archbishop’s trust, Elias began the building of the sumptuous temple which remains, to this day, a fine example of the grandeur and beauty of Romanesque architecture.
In the course of time, the city of Bari came to be known no longer as the capital city of the Byzantine Italian peninsula, but as the city of St. Nicholas. Historically famous people from all over Europe, travelled to Bari, including the great leading knights of the First Crusade (1096), the greatest philosopher of his time, St. Anselm of Aosta (for the Council of Bari in 1098), the Popes Urban II (1089) and Innocence II (1137), the Emperors Henry VI (1095) and Frederick II (1222). Under the Angevins and, in particular, under the reign of Charles II the Lame (1285-1309), the Basilica was granted feudal rights which contributed to its prosperity. Indeed, the beautiful basilica was able to weather through even the most critical periods, remaining a lively centre for pilgrims from all over the world, especially from Russia, the nation which fosters a particular devotion to Saint Nicholas.
Hence, the city of Bari acquired international fame thanks to the relics of St. Nicholas, and the Saint became popular, practically all over the world, as Nicholas of Bari.