Saint Nicholas

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Saint Nicholas the Wonder-Worker
Icon c 1500 St Nicholas.JPG
Russian icon depicting St Nicholas with scenes from his life. Late 1400s or early 1500s. National Museum, Stockholm.
Defender of Orthodoxy, Wonderworker, Holy Hierarch, Bishop of Myra
Born (270-03-15)15 March 270[1]
Patara, Lycia et Pamphylia, Asia Minor
Died 6 December 343(343-12-06) (aged 73)
Myra, Lycia
Honored in Anglicanism, Baptist, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, Methodism, Presbyterianism, Reformed
Major shrine Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Italy
Feast 6 December [O.S. 14 December](main feast day)
9 May [O.S. 22 May](translation of relics)[2]
Attributes Vested as a Bishop. In Eastern Christianity, wearing an omophorion and holding a Gospel Book. Sometimes shown with Jesus Christ over one shoulder, holding a Gospel Book, and with the Theotokos over the other shoulder, holding an omophorion
Patronage Children, coopers, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, repentant thieves, pharmacists, archers, pawnbrokers. Lorraine and Duchy of Lorraine.

Saint Nicholas (Greek: Ἅγιος Νικόλαος, Hagios Nikólaos, Latin: Sanctus Nicolaus); (15 March 270 – 6 December 343),[3][4] also called Nikolaos of Myra, was a historic 4th-century Christian saint and Greek[5] Bishop of Myra (Demre, part of modern-day Turkey) in Lycia. Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker (Νικόλαος ὁ Θαυματουργός, Nikolaos ho Thaumaturgos). He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus, whose modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas, itself from a series of elisions and corruptions of the transliteration of "Saint Nikolaos". His reputation evolved among the faithful, as was common for early Christian saints.[6] In 1087, part of the relics (about half of the bones) were furtively translated to Bari, in Apulia, Italy; for this reason, he is also known as Nikolaos of Bari. The remaining bones were taken to Venice in 1100. His feast day is 6 December.

The historical Saint Nicholas is commemorated and revered among Anglican,[7] Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox Christians. In addition, some Baptist,[8] Methodist,[9] Presbyterian,[10] and Reformed churches have been named in honor of Saint Nicholas.[11] Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, pawnbrokers and students in various cities and countries around Europe. He was also a patron of the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperors, who protected his relics in Bari.

Life[edit]

Nicholas was born a Greek[12][13][14] in Asia Minor during the third century in the city of Patara (Lycia et Pamphylia),[15][16] which was a port on the Mediterranean Sea,[16] and lived in Myra, Lycia[17] (part of modern-day Demre, Turkey), at a time when the region was Greek in its heritage,[16] culture, and outlook and politically part of the Roman diocese of Asia.[16] He was the only son of wealthy Christian parents named Epiphanius (Ἐπιφάνιος) and Johanna (Ἰωάννα) according to some accounts[18] and Theophanes (Θεοφάνης) and Nonna (Νόννα) according to others.[16] He was very religious from an early age[14] and according to legend, Nicholas was said to have rigorously observed the canonical fasts of Wednesdays and Fridays. His wealthy parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young and he was raised by his uncle—also named Nicholas—who was the bishop of Patara. He tonsured the young Nicholas as a reader and later ordained him a presbyter (priest).

In 325, he was one of many bishops to answer the request of Constantine and appear at the First Council of Nicaea. There, Nicolas was a staunch anti-Arian and defender of the Orthodox Christian position,[19] and one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed.[20]

Translation of the relics[edit]

Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy where most of the relics of St. Nicholas are kept today.
The church of San Nicolò al Lido (Venice), hosts half of Nicolas' relics

On 26 August 1071 Romanus IV, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire (reigned 1068–1071), faced Sultan Alp Arslan of the Seljuk Turks (reigned 1059–1072) in the Battle of Manzikert. The battle ended in humiliating defeat and capture for Romanus. As a result the Empire temporarily lost control over most of Asia Minor to the invading Seljuk Turks. The Byzantines would regain its control over Asia Minor during the reign of Alexius I Comnenus (reigned 1081–1118). But early in his reign Myra was overtaken by the Turks. Nicholas' tomb in Myra had become a popular place of pilgrimage. Because of the many wars and attacks in the region, some Christians were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult. For both the religious and commercial advantages of a major pilgrimage site, the Italian cities of Venice and Bari vied to get the Nicholas relics.[3] Taking advantage of the confusion, in the spring of 1087, sailors from Bari in Apulia seized part of the remains of the saint from his burial church in Myra, over the objections of the Orthodox monks. Returning to Bari, they brought the remains with them and cared for them. The remains arrived on 9 May 1087. There are numerous variations of this account. In some versions those taking the relics are characterized as thieves or pirates, in others they are said to have taken them in response to a vision wherein Saint Nicholas himself appeared and commanded that his relics be moved in order to preserve them from the impending Muslim conquest. Currently at Bari, there are two churches at his shrine, one Roman Catholic and one Orthodox.

Sailors from Bari collected just half of Nicholas' skeleton, leaving all the minor fragments in the grave. These were collected by Venetian sailors during the first crusade and brought to Venice, where a church to St. Nicholas, the patron of sailors, was built on the Lido. This tradition was confirmed in two scientific investigations of the relics in Bari and Venice, which revealed that the relics in the two cities belong to the same skeleton.[21][22] In our time, many churches in Europe, Russia and the United States claim to possess small relics, such as a tooth or a finger.[23]

It is said that in Myra the relics of Saint Nicholas each year exuded a clear watery liquid which smells like rose water, called manna (or myrrh), which is believed by the faithful to possess miraculous powers. After the relics were brought to Bari, they continued to do so, much to the joy of the new owners. Vials of myrrh from his relics have been taken all over the world for centuries, and can still be obtained from his church in Bari. Even up to the present day, a flask of manna is extracted from the tomb of Saint Nicholas every year on 6 December (the Saint's feast day) by the clergy of the basilica. The myrrh is collected from a sarcophagus which is located in the basilica vault and could be obtained in the shop nearby. The liquid gradually seeps out of the tomb, but it is unclear whether it originates from the body within the tomb, or from the marble itself; since the town of Bari is a harbor, and the tomb is below sea level, there are several natural explanations for the manna fluid, including the transfer of seawater to the tomb by capillary action.[24]

In 1993, a grave was found on the small Turkish island of Gemile, east of Rhodes, which historians believe is the original tomb of Saint Nicholas.[25] On 28 December 2009, the Turkish Government announced that it would be formally requesting the return of St. Nicholas's skeletal remains to Turkey from the Italian government.[26][27] Turkish authorities have asserted that St. Nicholas himself desired to be buried at his episcopal town, and that his remains were illegally removed from his homeland.

Legends and folklore[edit]

The dowry for the three virgins (Gentile da Fabriano, c. 1425, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome).

One legend[28] tells how during a terrible famine, a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house, where he killed them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, not only saw through the butcher's horrific crime but also resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers. Another version of this story, possibly formed around the eleventh century, claims that the butcher's victims were instead three clerks who wished to stay the night. The man murdered them, and was advised by his wife to dispose of them by turning them into meat pies. The Saint saw through this and brought the men back to life.

In his most famous exploit,[29] a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the girls' plight, Nicholas decided to help them, but being too modest to help the family in public (or to save them the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to the house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the house.

One version has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throwing the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes of age. Invariably, the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover the identity of their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; a variant holds that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.

The legends with the most likely historical basis are the stories of Nicholas helping three girls and stories of Nicholas helping sailors. Others, especially the legend of the three murdered children, are much later additions to Nicholas lore, historian Dr. Adam English concludes[30] in a new biography of Nicholas for Baylor University Press based on a four-year study of current historical research into Nicholas of Myra.

Miracle of wheat multiplication[edit]

A key ring with the image of Nikolaos of Myra as patron of the sailors

During a great famine that Myra experienced in 311–312, a ship was in the port at anchor, which was loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople. Nicholas invited the sailors to unload a part of the wheat to help in time of need. The sailors at first disliked the request, because the wheat had to be weighed accurately and delivered to the Emperor. Only when Nicholas promised them that they would not suffer any loss for their consideration, the sailors agreed. When they arrived later in the capital, they made a surprising find: the weight of the load had not changed, although the wheat removed in Myra was enough for two full years and could even be used for sowing.[31]

Face of the historical saint[edit]

Saint Nicholas, Russian icon from first quarter of the eighteenth century (Kizhi monastery, Karelia).

Whereas the devotional importance of relics and the economics associated with pilgrimages caused the remains of most saints to be divided up and spread over numerous churches in several countries, St. Nicholas is unusual in that most of his bones have been preserved in one spot: his grave crypt in Bari. Even with the allegedly continuing miracle of the manna, the archdiocese of Bari has allowed for one scientific survey of the bones. In the late 1950s, during a restoration of the chapel, it allowed a team of hand-picked scientists to photograph and measure the contents of the crypt grave.[32]

In the summer of 2005, the report of these measurements was sent to a forensic laboratory in England. The review of the data revealed that the historical St. Nicholas was barely five feet in height and had a broken nose. Additional facial reconstruction was performed in 2008 by Dr. Caroline Wilkinson at the University of Dundee.[33]

Formal veneration[edit]

Among the Greeks and Italians he is a favorite of sailors, fishermen, ships and sailing. As such he has become over time the patron saint of several cities maintaining harbors. In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as "The Lord of the Sea", often described by modern Greek scholars as a kind of Christianized version of Poseidon. In modern Greece, he is still easily among the most recognizable saints and 6 December finds many cities celebrating their patron saint. He is also the patron saint of all of Greece and particularly of the Hellenic Navy.[34]

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Saint Nicholas' memory is celebrated on almost every Thursday of the year (together with the Apostles) with special hymns to him which are found in the liturgical book known as the Octoechos. Soon after the transfer of Saint Nicholas' relics from Myra to Bari, a Russian version of his Life and an account of the transfer of his relics were written by a contemporary to this event.[35] Devotional akathists and canons have been composed in his honour, and are frequently chanted by the faithful as they ask for his intercession. He is mentioned in the Liturgy of Preparation during the Divine Liturgy (Eastern Orthodox Eucharist) and during the All-Night Vigil. Many Orthodox churches will have his icon, even if they are not named after him.

In Oriental Orthodoxy, the Coptic Church observes the Departure of St. Nicholas on Kiahk 10, or December 19.[36][37]

Saint Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Death (oil painting by Ilya Repin, 1888, State Russian Museum).

In late medieval England, on Saint Nicholas' Day parishes held Yuletide "boy bishop" celebrations. As part of this celebration, youths performed the functions of priests and bishops, and exercised rule over their elders. Today, Saint Nicholas is still celebrated as a great gift-giver in several Western European and Central European countries. According to one source, in medieval times nuns used the night of 6 December to deposit baskets of food and clothes anonymously at the doorsteps of the needy. According to another source, on 6 December every sailor or ex-sailor of the Low Countries (which at that time was virtually all of the male population) would descend to the harbour towns to participate in a church celebration for their patron saint. On the way back they would stop at one of the various Nicholas fairs to buy some hard-to-come-by goods, gifts for their loved ones and invariably some little presents for their children. While the real gifts would only be presented at Christmas, the little presents for the children were given right away, courtesy of Saint Nicholas. This and his miracle of him resurrecting the three butchered children made Saint Nicholas a patron saint of children and later students as well.[citation needed]

Among Albanians, Saint Nicholas is known as Shen'Kollë and is venerated by most Catholic families, even those from villages that are devoted to other saints. The Feast of Saint Nicholas is celebrated on the evening before 6 December, known as Shen'Kolli i Dimnit (Saint Nicholas of Winter), as well as on the commemoration of the interring of his bones in Bari, the evening before 9 May, known as Shen'Kolli i Majit (Saint Nicholas of May). Albanian Catholics often swear by Saint Nicholas, saying "Pasha Shejnti Shen'Kollin!" ("May I see Holy Saint Nicholas!"), indicating the importance of this saint in Albanian culture, especially among the Albanians of Malësia. On the eve of his feast day, Albanians will light a candle and abstain from meat, preparing a feast of roasted lamb and pork, to be served to guests after midnight. Guests will greet each other, saying, "Nata e Shen'Kollit ju nihmoftë!" ("May the Night of Saint Nicholas help you!") and other such blessings. The bones of Albania's greatest hero, George Kastrioti, were also interred in the Church of Saint Nicholas in Lezha, Albania, upon his death.[citation needed]

Iconography[edit]

St. Nicholas, the patron saint of Russian merchants. Fresco by Dionisius from the Ferapontov Monastery.

Saint Nicholas is a popular subject portrayed on countless Eastern Orthodox icons, particularly Russian ones. He is depicted as an Orthodox bishop, wearing the omophorion and holding a Gospel Book. Sometimes he is depicted wearing the Eastern Orthodox mitre, sometimes he is bareheaded. Iconographically, Nicholas is depicted as an elderly man with a short, full white fluffy beard and balding head. In commemoration of the miracle attributed to him by tradition at the Ecumenical Council of Nicea, he is sometimes depicted with Christ over his left shoulder holding out a Gospel Book to him and the Theotokos over his right shoulder holding the omophorion. Because of his patronage of mariners, occasionally Saint Nicholas will be shown standing in a boat or rescuing a drowning sailor.[citation needed]

In Roman Catholic iconography, Saint Nicholas is depicted as a bishop, wearing the insignia of this dignity: a bishop's vestments, a mitre and a crozier. The episode with the three dowries is commemorated by showing him holding in his hand either three purses, three coins or three balls of gold. Depending on whether he is depicted as patron saint of children or sailors, his images will be completed by a background showing ships, children or three figures climbing out of a wooden barrel (the three slaughtered children he resurrected).[citation needed] In medieval paintings, Saint Nicholas is depicted as a dark-skinned man, as in Pietro di Giovanni d'Ambrogio's Saint Nicholas of Bari, a 1430s painting held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or Francesco di Giorgio e di Lorenzo's 1461 Altarpiece with the Annunciation made for the church of Spedaletta.[38]

In a strange twist, the three gold balls referring to the dowry affair are sometimes metaphorically interpreted as being oranges or other fruits. As in the Low Countries in medieval times oranges most frequently came from Spain, this led to the belief that the Saint lives in Spain and comes to visit every winter bringing them oranges, other 'wintry' fruits and tales of magical creatures.[citation needed]

In music[edit]

Operetta St. Nicholas arrives[edit]

Salesian priest Jerko Gržinčič wrote a Christmas operetta in three acts entitled Miklavž prihaja (St. Nicholas arrives). The premiere took place before World War II in the Union Hostel in Ljubljana (now in Slovenia) with great success.[39]

Demre[edit]

Russian Orthodox statue of Saint Nicolas, now in a corner near the church in Demre.

In the saint's home town of Demre, Turkey, the modern city is built near the ruins of ancient Myra, and attracts many Russian tourists as St. Nicholas is a very popular Orthodox saint. Restoration to Saint Nicholas' original church is currently underway, with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 2007 permitting Divine Liturgy to be celebrated at the site, and contributing 40,000 Turkish Lira to the project.[citation needed]

A solemn bronze statue of the saint by Russian sculptor Gregory Pototsky was donated by the Russian government in 2000, and was given a prominent place in the square fronting the medieval Church of St. Nicholas. In 2005, mayor Süleyman Topçu had the statue replaced by a red-suited plastic Santa Claus statue, because he wanted an image more recognisable to foreign visitors. Protests from the Russian government against this were successful, and the bronze statue was returned (albeit without its original high pedestal) to a corner nearer the church.[citation needed]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Book of Martyrs. Catholic Book Publishing. 1948. 
  2. ^ "Serbia". Saint Nicholas Center. Retrieved 4 April 2012. 
  3. ^ a b "Who is St. Nicholas?". St. Nicholas Center. Retrieved 7 December 2010. 
  4. ^ "St. Nicholas". Orthodox America. Retrieved 7 December 2010. 
  5. ^ Cunningham, Lawrence (2005). A brief history of saints. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 33. ISBN 978-1-4051-1402-8. "The fourth-century Saint Nikolaos of Myra (in present-day Turkey) spread to Europe through the port city of Bari in southern Italy… Devotion to the saint in the Low countries became blended with Nordic folktales, transforming this early Greek bishop into that Christmas icon, Santa Claus’." 
  6. ^ Jones, Charles W. (1978). Saint Nikolaos of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-40700-5. 
  7. ^ "The Calendar [page ix]". Prayerbook.ca. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  8. ^ "St. Nicholas Bethel Bethel Baptist Church". Stnicholasbethelbaptist.com. 2013-06-02. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  9. ^ "St. Nicholas United Methodist Church - Church Gazetteer". Stnicholascenter.org. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  10. ^ "St Nicholas' Cardonald Parish Church - Church Gazetteer". Stnicholascenter.org. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  11. ^ "New York’s Dutch Cathedral: The Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas, Fifth Avenue". Andrewcusack.com. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  12. ^ Domenico, Roy Palmer (2002). The regions of Italy: a reference guide to history and culture. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 21. ISBN 0-313-30733-4. "Saint Nicholas (Bishop of Myra) replaced Sabino as the patron saint of the city… A Greek from what is now Turkey, he lived in the early fourth century." 
  13. ^ Burman, Edward (1991). Emperor to emperor: Italy before the Renaissance. Constable. p. 126. ISBN 0-09-469490-7. "For although he is the patron saint of Russia, and the model for a northern invention such as Santa Claus, Nicholas of Myra was a Greek." 
  14. ^ a b Ingram, W. Scott; Ingram, Asher, Scott; Robert (2004). Greek Immigrants. Infobase Publishing. p. 24. ISBN 9780816056897. "The original Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, was a Greek born in Asia Minor (now modern Turkey) in the fourth century. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life to Christianity." 
  15. ^ Lanzi, Gioia (2004). Saints and their symbols: recognizing saints in art and in popular images. Liturgical Press. p. 111. ISBN 0-8146-2970-9. "Nicholas was born around 270 in Patara on the coast of what is now western Turkey." 
  16. ^ a b c d e Collins, Ace (2009). Stories Behind Men of Faith. Zondervan. p. 121. ISBN 9780310564560. "Nicholas was born in the Greek city of Patara around 270 AD. The son of a businessman named Theophanes and his wife, Nonna, the child’s earliest years were spent in Myra… As a port on the Mediterranean Sea, in the middle of the sea lanes that linked Egypt, Greece and Rome, Myra was a destination for traders, fishermen, and merchant sailors. Spawned by the spirit of both the city’s Greek heritage and the ruling Roman government, cultural endeavours such as art, drama, and music were mainstays of everyday life." 
  17. ^ Faber, Paul (2006). Sinterklaas overseas: the adventures of a globetrotting saint. KIT Publishers. p. 7. ISBN 9789068324372. "The historical figure that served as model for the Dutch Sinterklaas was born around 270 CE in the port of Patara in the Greek province of Lycia in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). His Greek name Nikolaos means something along the lines of “victor of the people”." 
  18. ^ Lanzi, Gioia (2004). Saints and their symbols: recognizing saints in art and in popular images. Liturgical Press. p. 111. ISBN 0-8146-2970-9. "Nicholas was born around 270 in Patara on the coast of what is now western Turkey; his parents were Epiphanius and Joanna." 
  19. ^ Federer, William J. (2002). There Really Is a Santa Claus - History of St. Nicholas & Christmas Holiday Traditions. Amerisearch, Inc. p. 26. ISBN 978-0965355742. 
  20. ^ Davis, Leo Donald (1990). The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787) Their History and Theology. Liturgical Press. p. 58. ISBN 0-8146-5616-1. 
  21. ^ Ci sono ossa di san Nicola anche a Venezia? (in Italian)
  22. ^ Are all the bones in Bari? (in Italian)
  23. ^ "Relics of St. Nicholas - Where are They?". Saint Nicholas Center. Retrieved 2014-02-11. 
  24. ^ Girling, Richard, 2004-12-12, Talking Point: Now do you believe in Santa Claus?, The Times
  25. ^ Santa's tomb is found off Turkey The Independent, 17 Dec 1993. Retrieved 10 Jun 2012.
  26. ^ "Turks want Santa's bones returned". BBC News. 28 December 2009. Retrieved 23 May 2010. 
  27. ^ "‘Santa Claus’s bones must be brought back to Turkey from Italy’". Todayszaman.com. 2009-12-28. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  28. ^ http://www.stnicholascenter.org/Brix?pageID=409 (Dutch)
  29. ^ Bennett, William J. (2009). The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas. Howard Books. pp. 14–17. ISBN 978-1-4165-6746-2. 
  30. ^ English, Adam, and Crumm, David (2 December 2012). "Adam English digging back into the real St. Nicholas". ReadTheSpirit online magazine. 
  31. ^ Le Saux, Françoise Hazel Marie (2005). A companion to Wace. D.S.Brewer. ISBN 978-1-84384-043-5. 
  32. ^ "Anatomical Examination of the Bari Relics". Saint Nicholas Center. Retrieved 6 December 2013. 
  33. ^ "Putting a Face to the Past". BBC News. 1 September 2008. Retrieved 6 December 2013. 
  34. ^ "Greece". St. Nicholas Center. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  35. ^ "Feasts and Saints, Commemorated on May 9". Orthodox Church in America. Retrieved 4 April 2012. 
  36. ^ "St. Nicholas the Wonderworker". Synaxarium (Lives of Saints). Coptic Orthodox Church Network. Retrieved 13 December 2013. 
  37. ^ "Commemorations for Kiahk 10". Coptic Orthodox Church Network. Retrieved 13 December 2013. 
  38. ^ "People of Color in European Art History". Retrieved 2013-12-20. 
  39. ^ This operetta is translated in Croatian as: "Sveti Nikola dolazi" and partly in Hungarian: "Jön a Mikulás".

Further reading[edit]

  • Jones, Charles W. "Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend" (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 1978.
  • ASANO, Kazuo ed., The Island of St. Nicholas. Excavation and Research of Gemiler Island Area, Lycia, Turkey (Osaka University Press) 2010.
  • English, Adam C., "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra" (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press) 2012.

External links[edit]

(original tomb at Church of Saint Nicholas, Myra, Turkey)