Archaeologists uncover proofs of the man behind the legend of beloved St. Nick
'We could be looking at remains from St. Nicholas himself'

Archaeologists uncover proofs of the man behind the legend of beloved St. Nick

He is patron saint to all, from virgins to murderers. Now, evidence of the final remains of St. Nicholas is shored up by two -- conflicting -- archaeological finds

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Inset of an image of St. Nicholas that adorns the Indianapolis, Indiana, St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church. (courtesy)
    Inset of an image of St. Nicholas that adorns the Indianapolis, Indiana, St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church. (courtesy)
  • The church of San Nicolò al Lido (Venice), hosts half of St. Nicholas' relics. (Didier Descouens, CC-BY-SA, via wikipedia)
    The church of San Nicolò al Lido (Venice), hosts half of St. Nicholas' relics. (Didier Descouens, CC-BY-SA, via wikipedia)
  • Reconstruction of the face of St. Nicholas by Prof. Caroline Wilkinson. (Image courtesy Liverpool John Moores University)
    Reconstruction of the face of St. Nicholas by Prof. Caroline Wilkinson. (Image courtesy Liverpool John Moores University)
  • Russian icon depicting St. Nicholas with scenes from his life (Wikimedia Commons)
    Russian icon depicting St. Nicholas with scenes from his life (Wikimedia Commons)
  • What was earlier believed to be the sarcophagus of St. Nicholas at Myra, Turkey. (Sjoehest, CC-BY-SA, via wikicommons)
    What was earlier believed to be the sarcophagus of St. Nicholas at Myra, Turkey. (Sjoehest, CC-BY-SA, via wikicommons)

For St. Nicholas devotees, 2017 will be remembered for the miracle of the carbon dating: It is the year in which scientists proved that at least one relic of the legendary third- to fourth-century Christian bishop could be authentic.

This December 6, St. Nicholas’s feast day, Oxford researchers released a study summarizing the results of the first radio carbon dating analysis performed on one of the numerous bone fragments associated with the saint.

Prof. Tom Higham and Dr. Georges Kazan, the directors of the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College’s Advanced Studies Centre, used a micro-sample of bone fragment from a purported St. Nicholas relic from Illinois, and — wonder of wonders — the researchers verified that the relic dates to the fourth century.

Relic of St. Nicholas (pelvis fragment) at St. Martha of Bethany Church/Shrine of All Saints, Morton Grove, Illinois. (copyright T. Higham & G. Kazan)

This particular bone fragment, taken from a pelvis bone, is owned by Father Dennis O’Neill, of the Shrine of the All Saints, St. Martha in Bethany Church in Illinois, which also houses hundreds of other saints’ relics onsite.

“The results suggest that the bones could in principle be authentic and belong to the saint,” stated a press release from Oxford University.

This result apparently surprised the scientists: “Many relics that we study turn out to date to a period somewhat later than the historic attestation would suggest. This bone fragment, in contrast, suggests that we could possibly be looking at remains from St. Nicholas himself,” said Higham.

But wait. A few months earlier in October, Turkish archaeologists discovered what they believe is the “real” St. Nicholas deep under the Asia Minor church historically thought to be the location of St. Nicholas’s interment.  During electronic surveys, archaeologists discovered an untouched crypt under the ancient chapel in his Myra hometown — also dating to the fourth century.

While it has yet to be opened, archaeologists are fairly certain that the bones of the saint are within. According to The Telegraph, Antalya Director of Surveying and Monuments Cemil Karabayram said the electronic surveys showed gaps beneath the church traditional pilgrimage site.

“The world’s eyes will be set on here. We claim that St. Nicholas has been kept in this temple without any damage,” Karabayram told Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News.

What was earlier believed to be the sarcophagus of St. Nicholas at Myra, Turkey. (Sjoehest, CC-BY-SA, via Wikicommons)

“We believe this shrine has not been damaged at all, but it is quite difficult to get to it as there are mosaics on the floor,” Karabayram said. Reaching the crypt will take time as the mosaics must be carefully removed as a whole.

But if St. Nicholas rests in Turkey, then just whose bones are on display in the thousands of churches who bear his name?  These pilgrimage sites — and donation opportunities — to which innumerable fragments of the saint’s purported bones have found their way over the centuries include chapels in almost every country, including the Mar Nicola Church in Beit Jala, right near a little town called Bethlehem.

The facts as we know them

“Little is known for certain about the life of Nicholas,” according to Adam C. English, author of “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of St. Nicholas of Myra.”

“The record on Nicholas is thin because he left no volumes of his own theology or poetry or sermons. We have nothing written in his own hand. We have nothing written by his immediate contemporaries, either,” said English, the chair of the Department of Christian Studies and professor of Christian Theology and Philosophy at Campbell University, in a 2012 interview.

“The earliest historical records that mention his name come from a couple of hundred years after his death. That’s always troubling to a historian who, of course, would rather have firsthand accounts,” said English.

The saint lived circa 260-333 CE and was the bishop of Myra (modern Turkey’s Demre), part of the Byzantine Empire. According to an article in Biblical Archaeology, Nicholas was the only child of wealthy Christian merchants when Christianity was still illegal in the Roman Empire.

“The persecution inaugurated under Decius in 250 CE began to touch the local community of faith… Into this hostile environment, Nicholas was born around 260 CE. It is believed that his parents died of the plague when Nicholas was young and that he made pilgrimages to Palestine and Egypt while a youth,” according to the article. He was raised by his uncle, a priest and eventual bishop of Myra ahead of Nicholas.

Many of the early attendance lists record Nicholas’s presence at Emperor Constantine’s Council of Nicaea in 325, alongside the other bishops of the Christian empire. There, during a contentious debate over the nature of the Holy Trinity, he reportedly had a physical dust-up with the “heretical” Egyptian bishop Arius, who taught that Jesus the Son was not equal to God the Father — such was the passion of Nicholas’s faith.

The feminist freedom fighter

The most famous of the legends involving St. Nicholas has a surprisingly feminist twist.

When Nicholas was still a young man, he heard about a nearby family that had fallen upon hard times. A father could not supply a dowry for the marriages of his three daughters, and was contemplating sending them to work as prostitutes so they would have a roof and earn some income.

Nicholas, hearing about this appalling prospect, came in the dead of night and threw a bag of gold through the father’s window. Seeing that the father, after thanking God, used the money to arrange a marriage for his first daughter, Nicholas came a second time with a second bag of gold.

Russian icon depicting St. Nicholas with scenes from his life (Wikimedia Commons)

The father married off his second daughter and suspected the mysterious philanthropist might return with a third gift. Staying up night after night so he could thank his benefactor, the father finally did catch Nicholas when he attempted to give a third dowry. Versions differ, but most say that Nicholas pleaded with the father to not reveal his identity. Not heeding his patron’s modesty, the father told the whole town, and thus the legend of St. Nicholas the gift-giver was born.

According to author English, this saint’s tale differs greatly from most of his contemporaries’ stories.

“There’s nothing exactly like that story from other saints in that era. At that time, the most popular saint stories involved martyrdom in which the saint would die in some gruesome way. Or, there were stories of rigorous monks who went out in the desert and denied themselves in heroic ways,” said English in 2012.

“But here was a story about Nicholas anonymously giving something to these three poor girls — girls who no one else in that era would have cared about… That story lit up people’s imagination. He becomes a gift-giver, a patron saint of young maidens, newlyweds and anyone in dire distress. You’re down to your very last crust of bread, but watch the window: Nicholas may yet appear to save you. That story of the three maidens was his ticket to fame,” said English.

Dead, but not exactly buried

Centuries after his death, Seljuk Turkish invaders seized control of Asia Minor in 1071. More than a decade later, Italian sailors (or pirates!) who venerated St. Nicholas sneaked into the Myra church and absconded with half of his remains to the port of Bari.

According to an in-depth treasure trove of St. Nicholas lore, the website, “The Bari expedition, with three ships, 62 sailors and two priests, beat out the Venetians and the relics arrived in Bari on May 9, 1087.”

Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy, where most of the relics of Saint Nicholas are kept. (Wikipedia)

Later, during the Crusades, the other half of the skeletal remains made their way to Venice. Circa 1099, some 200 ships weighed anchor at Myra, broke into the church, and took the remaining St. Nicholas bones. The fleet then set sail to the holy land, only returning to Venice in 1101, where a church was built on the banks of the Lido sandbar.

Interestingly, until the dig in October 2017 in which the Turkish archaeologists discovered an untouched fourth-century crypt which they attribute to St. Nicholas, the Turks have historically held that his bones were housed in Bari. According to a 2015 Forbes article, “in 2009, 2012, and again in 2013, the Turkish Ministry of Culture has petitioned the Italian government and the Vatican for repatriation of the saint based on laws surrounding illegal ancient transport of antiquities and other items of historical significance.”

However, Antalya Director of Surveying and Monuments Karabayram told Hurriyet Daily News in October that historical Myra church documents indicate that St. Nicholas was kept in a separate section and the bones taken by the Italian sailors “did not belong to St. Nicholas but to another priest.”

In 1953 and again in 1957, when the Bari church was undergoing restoration, Bari University Prof. Luigi Martino carried out anatomical examinations of the Bari bones, taking measurements, photographs and x-rays.

According to the St. Nicholas Center website, Martino concluded the bones were from the skeleton of a 70-plus-year-old man of average height for the time period, 5’6″ (1.67 meters). The website states that “The head had a normal shape, slightly elongated… Strong teeth showed recent decay and also indicated that his diet was primarily vegetarian.”

The church of San Nicolò al Lido (Venice), hosts half of St. Nicholas’ relics. (Didier Descouens, CC-BY-SA, via Wikipedia)

In 1992, Martino also examined the relics held in Venice, which were shattered into up to 500 pieces. According to a 2015 article on the fascinating website Strange Remains, “Martino determined that the skeletal remains in Bari and Venice are likely from the same man because the pieces of the Venetian bones are fragments of body parts missing from the body interred at Bari.”

Be that as it may, there is a unique phenomenon that is associated solely with the Bari crypt. As described in the aptly headlined 2013 article, “Saint Nicholas, the Secrete Santa,” St. Nicholas’s bone relics secrete a clear oily liquid called “manna.”

According to the St. Nicholas Center website, since 1980, the manna is extracted every May 9 on the Feast of the Translation — when the relics were moved from Myra to Bari. The Rector of the Basilica extracts the “santa manna” (some 50 milliliters — about 1.7 fluid ounces — in a crystal vial) in an ornate ceremony that is attended by a delegate of the pope, the archbishop of Bari, an Orthodox bishop, civil authorities, other clergy and worshipers.

So what about St. Nick, the jolly fat man?

The evolution of St. Nicholas to his American St. Nick avatar Santa Claus occurred gradually. According to the St. Nicholas Center website, when Europeans arrived in the New World, they brought iterations of saint worship with them: Vikings built a cathedral in Greenland, and even Christopher Columbus named a Haitian port for him in 1492.

By the advent of the 16th century’s Protestant Reformation, a more ascetic religious practice saw a drop in the popularity of saint veneration in the New England colonies. However, according to the website, “Because the common people so loved St. Nicholas, he survived on the European continent as people continued to place nuts, apples, and sweets in shoes left beside beds, on windowsills, or before the hearth.”

After the 1776 Revolution, scholars again see a rise in the popularity of St. Nicholas, which was rocket boosted by the January 1809 publication of Washington Irving’s satire, “Knickerbocker’s History of New York.” But, according to the website, “This was not the saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe.”

Illustrator Thomas Nast’s 1881 Harper’s Weekly illustration of St. Nick. (Val Berryman Collection, via St. Nicholas Center)

The next stage in the evolution of St. Nick was the publication of children’s literature from 1821 onwards, such as the “Children’s Friend.” This book and others of the genre depicted a “Sante Claus” who arrived from the North in a sleigh with a flying reindeer, according to the website.

But the irrevocable correlation between St. Nicholas and Santa Claus comes from the ultimate of Christmas poems, 1823’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known as “The Night Before Christmas.”

“…He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…”

Following the poem’s publication, illustrators such as Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast used its description as a jumping-off point to complete St. Nicholas’s evolution into the ruddy, chubby Santa Claus in popular culture (and Coca-Cola ads) today.

Based on scientific analysis of St. Nicholas’s relics, however, anthropologists have drawn up a very different image of the saint.

First in 2004, and refined again in 2014, anthropologist Prof. Caroline Wilkinson from Liverpool John Moores University created a forensic facial reconstruction of St. Nicholas based on “all the skeletal and historical material,” according to a 2014 BBC report.

The realistic-looking image — complete with broken nose — was generated using a facial reconstruction system and 3D interactive technology by Liverpool John Moores University’s Face Lab, according to the article.

Reconstruction of the face of St. Nicholas by Prof. Caroline Wilkinson. (Image courtesy Liverpool John Moores University)

After 2004’s initial projections, Wilkinson told The Guardian that “the broken nose suggests something about his character. He was considered a bit of a rebel — he may have come into conflict with people. He could have just fallen down some stairs, but it’s quite a heavy duty break.”

Perhaps his legendary brawl with the Egyptian bishop was more than the story of a slap in the face; maybe this swagger is part of what makes the saint so accessible to so many. He is credited as the patron saint of dozens of trades and people from different walks of life, including candle makers, sailors, murderers, virgins, and weavers.

Designer Anand Kapoor, who worked on the 2004 forensic facial reconstruction, agreed. The artist, from the Manchester-based studio Image Foundry, was quoted in the Guardian as saying, “If he were alive now, you would imagine him to be a rugby player or a bouncer, or even a stereotypical thug, anything but the Coca-Cola Santa that everyone has grown to love.”

According to author English, that Everyman appeal is part of his allure.

“One of the stories I tell in the book is about Nicholas having drinks with other saints up in heaven. He keeps nodding off. Someone nudges him and says he’s missing out on the party. And he says: ‘I’m sorry but I’m just back from helping more sailors in trouble get back to their port.’ That’s the kind of story that still is passed around. He’s a saint who is earthy. He’s a laborer. He’s not afraid to get messy to help people,” said English.

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