“Santa is dead; I have been to all three of his tombs!” That tongue-in-cheek potential presentation title is the idea of beloved former student, now-former colleague, and fine scholar, J Mark Nicovich. The conundrum of three tombs (plus many other claimed relics) arises from the traditions that St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (now Demre in Turkey), was buried in that city but his remains were stolen on two different occasions and taken (ahem, . . . “translated”) to Bari in southern Italy in 1087 and Venice, in northern Italy in 1101. Thus, there are Churches of St. Nicholas in all three locations, each claiming to enshrine the resting place for the inspiration and namesake of Santa Claus. See Part 1 of this Trilogy on “St. Nick’s Not-So-Final Resting Place?” here (and Part 2 here).
So, which church/city possesses the real relics of St. Nicholas? As it happens, recent months have seen some significant developments in this question.
In early October of 2017 Cemil Karabayram, Director of Surveying and Monuments for the region in which Myra/Demre is located (Antalya), claimed in an interview that CT and radar scans had revealed an intact “temple” beneath the St. Nicholas Church. The exact location is not revealed by the article, but he indicated that the find is currently inaccessible “because experts have to first work on the mosaics.”1
Karabayram speculated, “maybe we will find the untouched body of St. Nicholas.” How can this be, given the two accounts of the “translation” of the Saint’s relics to Bari and Venice? “Traders in Bari took the bones. But it is said that these bones did not belong to St. Nicholas but to another priest,” he said, adding. “Professor Yıldız Ötüken . . . says that St Nicholas is kept in a special section.” “We claim that St. Nicholas has been kept in this temple without any damage. . . . If we get the results, Antalya’s tourism will gain big momentum.”2
The claim that Nicholas’ body has remained in Myra/Demre is significant; and the note that tourism would be boosted if it is found is telling. Are city status and tourist revenues a motivation? Bari and Venice surely took note . . .
On 6 December (significantly, the date of St. Nicholas’ death and Feast Day), articles announced that relics of St. Nicholas subjected to Carbon 14 analysis by the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College’s Advanced Studies Centre dated to the fourth century; i.e., consistent with the AD 343 death of the historical bishop. Careful sifting of the published info reveals that the single bone tested is owned by an American priest in Morton Grove Illinois, who says he obtained the relic from Lyon in France.3 By inference, the Oxford University news release suggests that the bones in Bari and Venice therefore could date to the fourth century as well. There is no solid connection between the American relic and those in the Italian churches. But the Bari relics of St. Nicholas are missing part of the pelvis, of which the tested bone apparently comes.
During restorations at Bari’s Basilica di San Nicola in the early 1950s, the tomb of St. Nicholas was opened for the first time since it was sealed by Pope Urban II in 1089. The bones were examined by Luigi Martino, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bari, who found the skeleton was incomplete. A complete skull, however, allowed reconstruction of the ancient face—that of Nicholas, if the bones are authentic.4 In 1992, Martino was asked to examine the relics in Venice. The latter were all broken into smaller pieces, but he concluded that the Venice fragments were complementary to the bones in Bari and they are from the skeleton of the same man. A narrative that the Bari sailors in 1087 hurriedly absconded with the skeleton and left pieces behind to be found in 1099 by the Venetian raiders is thus possible.5 So, in a spirit of ecumenical peace, the Bari and Venice claims can coexist and they can share the reconstructed image of the Saint adored in both places. The logical—but unlikely—next step is to use DNA analysis to connect the bones of Bari and Venice, and either radiocarbon date them or include the Illinois fragment in the DNA analysis. This, however, would spoil the remaining mystery.
Meanwhile, back at Demre/Myra, we await further archaeological explorations in the Church of St. Nicholas. As for the image of St. Nicholas there, there is already some controversy, as the city has displayed four different images of the Saint in the last 35 years.6 From 1981 to 2000, the only public image was a statue of a Father Christmas-like figure with a bag over his shoulder and children huddled around him, as if seeking protection. It still stands in the courtyard in front of St. Nicholas Church. In my mind, this is the most appropriate one, given the controversy that followed (it might be noted that moving/replacing statues is not a new thing):
In 2000, a Russian sculptor and the mayor of Moscow presented Demre with a bronze statue of St. Nicholas in Orthodox style, which was placed atop a large globe on a pedestal in the town square, a block or so in front of the church.
In 2005, however, the Orthodox Christian St. Nicholas was replaced by the town council with a red-suited Santa Claus statue made of Bakelite (as I never saw the Santa statue in place, you can view a pic here). Demre’s mayor, explained “this is the one everyone knows;” plus, it was also less offensive to the city’s Muslim population.7 Nevertheless, complains were made, primarily by Russian interests, as St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Russia. Finally (for now), and perhaps in response to protests, a compromised was reached on Christmas Day 2008, when the current statue atop the pedestal was unveiled:
It is a fiberglass “Turkish Santa” with a heroic stance and victorious mien, holding a small child on his shoulder and another by the hand, each raising a wrapped gift. Controversy aside; I like it.
Actually, I like them all. The changing images (and names) of St. Nicholas are a commentary on social roles of hero figures, cultural appropriation, tribalism . . . and really on human nature. Most Americans of recent generations experienced an evolution (or revolution) in their own concepts of Santa Claus while maturing, not so unlike the changes of statues in Demre. And as for the question of the travels (or not) of Nicholas’ bones; I am taken back to the catalyst for this series of posts: the NORAD tracking of Santa on Christmas Eve, mentioned in Part 1. While the notion that government technology could track his sleigh is exciting, and the website is visually impressive (and educational), I cant help feeling that it robs something from that childhood wonder at the mysterious how and unknown when of Santa’s anticipated arrival. Then I realized the technology and presentation didn’t really answer anything—there is always more mystery and wonder. So, that is why I rather suspect (and perhaps secretly hope) that the true fate of Nicholas’ remains will remain similarly unknown. Life is just more interesting that way.
Thanks for looking!