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Myra: Basilica of Saint Nicholas


The center of the basilica of S. Nicholas at Myra. Photo Jona Lendering.
The center of the basilica
Myra: town in Lycia, modern Demre. The ancient town is especially well-known because it was the residence of Nicholas of Myra, the original saint behind Santa Claus.

The first page of this article is here.

In the fourth century, the venerable bishop Nicholas of Myra was one of the most influential leaders in the Christian church. According to an old legend, he was born in nearby Patara and played a role during the theological discussion on the nature of Christ. 

For centuries, pilgrims came to visit his his tomb, which was situated in a church built outside the walls of Myra. The basilica, which had three naves and apses, was rebuilt in the sixth century (by the emperor Justinian) and the eighth or ninth century. The latest restoration, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was paid by the last czar, Nicholas II. 

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A fresco from the basilica, showing the venerable bishop. Photo Jona Lendering.
A fresco from the basilica, showing the venerable bishop

In 1087, Italian merchants stole the bones and brought them to Bari in southern Italy. (A couple of what are believed to be remaining bones are now in the Archaeological Museum of Antalya.) From Bari, the cult of the saint spread to the western part of Europe. As a consequence, Nicholas, who already was the patron saint of the sailors, now also became the protector of many seafaring nations and towns (e.g., Russia, Amsterdam, and New York).

Because the legend tells that Nicholas once gave gold to three young girls without dowry, it was not unusual to give presents on Saint Nicholas' day, 6 December. In the sixteenth century, the merchants of Amsterdam brought this custom to the New World, to their colony New Amsterdam. When this town had become English in the seventeenth century (it was renamed New York), the inhabitants continued to celebrate Nicholas' saint's day.

One of the columns of a now destroyed entrance of the church. Photo Jona Lendering.
One of the columns of a now destroyed entrance

In the third quarter of the eighteenth century, this cult, which had lost much of its popularity, became a focus of anti-English sentiments; at least one secret society in New York was called "Sons of Saint Nicholas". In the course of the nineteenth century, this gradually changed into "Santa Claus", whose festival was postponed to 25 December. As Father Christmas, Nicholas has become popular all over the world.

The difference between Saint Nicholas (who is still venerated in the Netherlands) and the American Santa Claus is that the latter is a mere giver of presents, whereas the Dutch "Sinterklaas" has retained something of the old, venerable bishop, including the possibility to censure someone's behavior. This is, in fact, the difference between ancient Catholicism and the type of Protestantism that changed into capitalism.

The original tomb of the saint. Photo Jona Lendering. Mosaic in the basilica of S. Nicholas. Photo Jona Lendering. Bones, believed to be Nicholas', in the Archaeological Museum of Antalya (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering.
One of the possible tombs of Nicholas in the church One of the mosaics in the church Bones of Nicholas
 (Archaeological Museum of Antalya)
Oil lamp from the basilica. Archaeological Museum of Antalya (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering. Pectoral. Archaeological Museum of Antalya (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering. Part of the decoration of the original basilica. Archaeological Museum of Antalya (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering.
Oil lamp from the basilica
(Archaeological Museum of Antalya)
Pectoral
(Archaeological Museum of Antalya)
Part of the decoration of the original basilica
 (Archaeological Museum of Antalya)
A modern statue of Saint Nicholas. Photo Jona Lendering. The people of modern Demre do not really like this transformation and will stress that "their" Nicholas, whose bones are in Bari, was a real person, and not a symbol of capitalism. They have a point.

You can see the church on a satellite photo over here.

More about Nicholas

Go here.
Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2003
Revision: 13 July 2010
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