St. Nicholas: The Great Adventure
(The Story of a Man and His Remains)

A history of the anatomical investigations of the skeletal remains of St. Nicholas of Myra

Conference Address given by Professor Luigi Martino, 1994

Background about Saint Nicholas
The Translation of St. Nicholas Relics from Myra to Bari – 1087
The Anatomical Examination – 1953 & 1957
Anatomical Examination of the Relics in the Lido of Venice – 1992

Background about Saint Nicholas

Distinguished gentlemen, officials, and dear colleagues—many of whose accomplishments I recall with great enthusiasm—it is with great pleasure that I accepted the invitation of Prof. Pannacciulli, distinguished President of the Bari Health Circle (Circolo della Sanità di Bari) to speak to you today. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to tell you everything I have learned concerning the bodily remains of the patron saint of our city, Bari. That is, of course, St. Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, during the fourth century after Christ.

To speak of saints is to speak of God, of the invisible creator who loves his creatures. We prefer to indicate God's thought and God's work with the simplistic term of Nature, which we often cannot fail to recognize as wise, provident, healer, restorer, innovator, that is, always as a mysterious supreme intelligence, operating in the entire universe.

Talking about saints is also talking about the Word, which has shown us, for all and forever, the true reality of things, of what is good and what is evil for all humanity. This special, living, social body —being the highest of creation—can be ever more perfected, but only through the voluntary, good collaboration of the body itself.

Saints are luminous points of reference showing how one can joyfully dedicate one's whole life to being God's collaborator, to being the loving hand of God, the comforter of the sick, the poor, the needy on earth. Saints are examples of how, by overcoming the stubborn materialism of reason itself, we can already hear, from the depths of our instinct, the voice that reveals the invisible and mysterious realities of the other world.

From his youth St. Nicholas dedicated himself, with extreme enthusiasm and yet with simplicity and humility, to manifest the presence of the comforting God among his people. He was a ready and spontaneous helper of the young and the weak, of the poor. He became a generous and strong champion of the unfortunate and the persecuted. He impetuously faced the violent and the proud without fear, presented himself authoritatively to the powerful, and resignedly submitted to hardships, sufferings, and sacrifice. He was a model of honest and wise administration of the community's goods. His unalterable rectitude and great goodness gave him charisma. His passionate words about God made him a driver of consciences. He even often manifested supernatural, prodigious, miraculous, wonderworking spiritual powers. He was considered a saint already in life, so that everyone eagerly came to him in difficult situations and invoked him in dangers.

Nicholas was born in Patara, in Lycia in southern Anatolia, presumably between 250 and 260 after Christ. He was the only son of wealthy parents of great Christian piety, and nephew (on the paternal side) of the Archbishop of Myra, named Nicholas. The young boy admired this uncle, who took an interest in his education.

Myra was an Anatolian port city with lively mercantile activity, located in Lycia itself. It was a relatively short distance from Rhodes and Cyprus by sea and from Palestine and Egypt by land.

Church in Demre
What remains in Myra (today Demre) of the ancient Basilica of S. Nicola

Nicholas received Holy Orders, perhaps at the age of 27, dedicating himself completely to the care of the diocesan religious community. It was already endangered by the appalling Christian persecution begun in [AD 303] by Emperor Diocletian. On the death of his uncle Nicholas (his holy uncle Archbishop . . .) Nicholas wanted to withdraw to a hermitage and then go as a pilgrim to the Holy Land. He went first to Alexandria, Egypt, to venerate the tomb of evangelist St. Mark; then to Said, to meet the anchorites of Thebaid. Finally he went up to Jerusalem to venerate the Holy Places. Nicholas returned to Myra to continue his generous mission as a servant of God and to the persecuted. Great was the joy when the proclamation of the Edict of Milan of AD 313 was announced. It finally recognized the Christian religion as the state religion. The Edict had been signed by Constantine, Emperor of the West, and by his brother-in-law Licinius, Emperor of the East.

In AD 314, due to the death of John, Archbishop of Myra, a great and completely unexpected event occurred—for the merciful and intrepid Nicholas. The bishops, who had gathered to appoint the successor, found themselves forced to decide. Following an auspicious sign that was foreseen as a divine designation, they therefore nominated the pious Nicholas as the new Archbishop of Myra.

Nicholas' dedication to the weighty task was complete. This, however, was immediately made difficult as it coincided with the last Christian persecution that was led by the dishonest Licinius. First there were threats, then impediments, violence, imprisonments, and finally, a forced, eventful, tormented exile that made Nicholas suffer greatly. This continued until AD 324, when Constantine defeated Licinius in battle and sent him to death. In AD 325 Nicholas went to Byzantium to pay homage to Constantine, who had also called a Council in Nicaea to judge the heretic Arius. Nicholas participated and, indeed, faced Arius with great energy, contributing to the restoration of our threatened religion. Immediately afterwards Nicholas wanted to go to Rome to pay his respects to Pope Sylvester I, who had presided over the Council. On this occasion, he passed through Bari, where he left one of his prophecies, "Here my bones will rest." Upon his death, which occurred at the age of 80 on December 6, 335 (according to the Bari Canon Putignani), Nicholas was placed in a marble tomb, buried behind the main altar of the cathedral church of Myra.

Nicholas' fame as a great saint spread everywhere by navigators from all over civilized Europe, and in later periods, in both the East and in the West. Santa Claus is the St. Nicholas still remembered today by children as a giver of gifts and joy.

Time passed, century after century, through various upheavals. About 700 years after the Saint's death the bloodthirsty hordes of Mongolic lineage Turks arrived in Asia Minor, then in Anatolia, and as far as Byzantium. They came in great masses from Central Asia, dreadfully invading, bringing Muslim extremism that threatened Christian civilization, destroying everything that constituted a sign of our religion. So the bodily remains of St. Nicholas in Myra, in Lycia, were in extreme danger. Among the first to recognize this danger were sailors, from Venice and Bari, who frequented the eastern Mediterranean merchant ports.

A hidden competition rose up between the two bravest Adriatic Christian cities' seafarers to see who would arrive first to save the Saint's relics. It was the people of Bari who organized themselves, alone, first, on the sly, to attempt this adventurous operation. It had a happy outcome, fortunately. It was in the year 1087, a time when Christian peoples were already preparing initiatives to face, once again, the danger of a Muslim invasion, this time from Eastern Europe.

At this point we have to move on to the story of the theft of the Saint's bones by the people of Bari.

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The Translation of St. Nicholas Relics from Myra to Bari — 1087

Map of route from Bari to Demre
The journey of the Bari sailors

A group of sixty-two sailors from Bari and nearby coastal towns had arrived in Antioch to transport grain. They had three caravels under the command of helmsman Giannoccaro and accompanied by Christian priests Lupo and Grimoaldo. They decided to try—with a surprise operation, like a real commando—to violate the Nicolaian sepulcher in the Church of Myra, which was just three miles from the coast. A patrol of forty-seven was armed and equipped with burglary tools. As the site was lonely and deserted, they entered the church as chanting pilgrims. They immediately threatened the four guardian monks with death. They were blocked, gagged, and terrified and made to indicate the precise location of St. Nicholas' stone tomb.

Without wasting any more time, the highest ranking and impulsive sailor, named Matteo, smashed the two stone slabs that covered the tomb with strong hammers, and thus opened the tomb niche behind the high altar. This revealed the coveted bones submerged in a large amount of liquid. In great haste they took most of the bones of the hands and feet, then the bulkier and more robust bones, such as those of the lower spine, pelvis, lower limbs, and then, in tears, and finally, after some difficulty, the skull. After wrapping everything up in the priests' cloaks, the sailors ran away to avoid the wrath of the furious monks, the people who had been alerted, and the Turkish gendarmes who had been notified.

The three caravels, already ready, immediately weighed anchor to sail to the Adriatic. After a journey of about twenty days they finally entered the cove of San Giorgio, near Mola di Bari, with joyful songs and sounds. The next day, Sunday May 9th, a veritable flood of people and boats poured between San Giorgio and Bari. The subsequent celebrations of the entire city and neighboring towns were grandiose and very jubilant.

At that time Bari needed a protector! A charismatic protector! And now they finally had one! The people of Bari still remembered with terror their fearful subjection to bloodthirsty Muslim Saracens from AD 842 to 866, and, with utmost gratitude, liberation by Venetian Doge Orseolo's naval fleet from the Saracen attempt to reconquer our city in 1002.

They also remembered further harsh subjection to the Byzantines and the vain insurrection attempt in 1018 by Melo di Bari, who had called, in useless aid, the first Normans attracted to Italy.

In 1035 Normans from the large family of warrior Tancred of Altavilla descended into Italy. They came from Normandy and managed to definitively expel the Greeks from southern Italy, replacing them in the various territories.

Bari 1087
Bari (Barium) in 1087
(Norman rule under Ruggiero I)

In Apulia it was Robert, called Guiscard, who took over royal power and was recognized by Pope Nicholas II, who crowned him in 1057 Prince of Apulia and Calabria. Bari was definitively subjugated to him in 1071.

In 1085 Bari found itself subjected to the Prince who succeeded Guiscardo, his son Ruggero I, who competed for power with his older brother Bohemond. In 1087 Ursone was Archbishop of Bari, Father Elia was Abbot of the Convent of St. Benedict, and Victor III was Pope in Rome. At that time Bari was already boasting of new buildings being erected: the fortress of Guiscardo that was enlarged into a castle and the cathedral. It also boasted of illustrious sons of vast fame: the jurisconsults Andrea da Bari and Sparano da Bari, who were compilers of the widely appreciated "Consuetudines barenses" (Customs of Bari).

Two scribes wrote accounts of the extraordinary seafaring event in the next year, 1088: the Archdeacon Giovanni della Cattedrale on behalf of the highest city authorities, and the Cleric Nicephorus, on invitation from the merchant bourgeoisie.

Basilica San Nicola Bari
The basilica of S. Nicola in Bari
Photo: Berthold Werner, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Bari immediately became an important city and a destination for pilgrimage. Abbot Elia received the task of building the current grandiose Basilica in the area of the Greek Catapanato that had been donated to Bari by Roger I. After two years, in 1089, the crypt was ready. The new Pope Urban II came from Rome to Bari to place the bones of the Saint into his definitive tomb chapel in the crypt.

After another nine years, in 1098, Pope Urban II wanted to hold an ecumenical council in the Bari Basilica to examine the relations between the two churches, the Eastern of Byzantium and the Western of Rome. 

Bohemond (who later became King of Antioch) and his heroic cousin Tancred participated in the First Crusade of 1100 (ordered by Pope Urban II and Peter the Hermit, and led by Goffredo di Buglione) as a valiant warrior (remembered by Tasso in Gerusalemme liberata). Bari became an important transit city for travel to the Holy Land.

Bari 1150
Bari (Barium) in 1150
(Norman rule under Ruggiero II)
Old town Bari
Historic center of Bari

To follow all the events of the time it must be taken into account that in 1060 Guiscardo had sent his brother Ruggiero into Lalia. In six years, by 1066, he succeeded in freeing Sicily from the Arabs, obtaining the title of Ruggiero I King of Sicily. Upon his death, his son Ruggiero succeeded him and took the title of Ruggiero II King of Sicily. Then, on the death of Bohemond in 1111, they demanded recognition in Italy as Sovereign of all the Normans with the title of Ruggiero II, King of Sicily, Calabria and Puglia. The coronation took place in Palermo in 1130, and was repeated in Bari, in 1132, to submit the kingdom to St. Nicholas' protection.

It was in 1100, thirteen years after the Bari sailors escapade and during the first Crusade, that the Venetians—who had already, in AD 828, stolen the bodily remains of the evangelist St. Mark from Alexandria, Egypt—also wanted to collect the skeletal remains of St. Nicholas that the Bari sailors had left in Myra. The Venetians repeated, by surprise, the same commando operation as the people of Bari. By threatening the Myran custodian monks with death, they obtained the Saint's bone relics that the Barians had not taken. These bones had been collected and put in a hidden place. It was immediately ascertained that they had been hidden in a sealed wooden chest placed behind the high altar. In addition to the box-ossuary marked as "St. Nicholas," the Venetians also took two other nearby wooden chests made out to saints, and transported them to the ships. They quickly reached the Adriatic, and, on 6 December 1100, stopped at the entrance to the inviolable port of Venice, at the northern tip of the barrier island of the Lido. Here they deposited the three wooden chests in the Church of S. Nicolò, which had been on the site for years and had already been dedicated to the Saint for some time.

In the civilized world of the time, it was immediately known that the major bones of the Saint, including the skull, were located in Bari, and the residual bones in Venice. Of this Venetian event, we have a Chronicle of 1300, written by the friar Giordano dei Curti.

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The Anatomical Examination — 1953 & 1957

Bari tomb
S. Nicola - burial niche in Bari
Diagram of Bari remains
Nicolaian skeletal remains in Bari

Time passed again, century after century, until a new historical fact appeared. In Bari, in 1952— forty-two years ago, the architect Franco Schettini, our Superintendent of Fine Arts, notified the citizens that groundwater infiltrations were menacingly invading the Basilica's foundations, and that massive masonry repair and protection works were urgently needed. Which was to say the St. Nicholas Crypt had to be cleared quickly. Consequently, it was necessary for the responsible authorities to intervene immediately to open the St. Nicholas stone tomb, covered by enormous stone slabs, and to temporarily transfer the bodily relics to a protected site.

The Holy Father Pope Pius XII gave this task to a special Commission under the control of the Archbishop of Bari, Mons. Enrico Nicodemo, and the Prior of the Basilica, Dominican Father Girolamo De Vito. I, with the help of the talented Dr. Alfredo Ruggieri of Bari, was entrusted with the task of anatomical examination of the existing skeletal remains. In the night between 5 and 6 May 1953, after the three very heavy stone cover slabs (the upper one weighed 32 quintals) were slowly lifted by winches, the Saint's bone remains, after 864 years, were finally brought back out into the open, in deep silence, vibrant with emotion. The monolithic niche contained water that covered the scattered bones, the so-called Manna. The Manna had already been analyzed by two Professors of the Adriatic University of Bari, Chemistry Prof. Riccardo Ciusa, who had declared it free from salts, tasteless and transparent like rock water, and hygienist Prof. Filippo Neri, who recognized it as sterile. The niche (a carefully excavated monolith) proved to be free from any cracks in either the sides or the bottom.

Then the anatomical survey began. The bones—which had slowly weakened during the 1628 years that had passed since the death of the Saint—were extracted, dripping, dried with enormous delicacy, and neatly arranged on tables. They appeared partly in the form of easily recognizable skeletal segments, partly as segmented pieces, partly as detached fragments, and partly as small fragments (to be distinguished from the small stones that were also present).

Catalogs of both the existing bones and of the missing bones were drawn up (subsequently used for the representation of the whole skeleton on a large wall panel). The skull was found to be well preserved, clean, missing only the left upright branch of the mandible. Numerous teeth, molars very uneven in the crowns, the group of the latter agenesis. Most of the largest and strongest bones are present (those of the lower limbs, the lumbosacral spine, a large part of the left pelvis) as well as the bones of the hands and feet. On the other hand, the thin bones of the upper limbs are poorly represented, and those of the chest and neck are almost absent. All of the bones were ashen in color. Of pathological aspect some dorsal vertebrae for osteophytotic bridges from chronic deforming spondylarthrosis. A written report was made of this first anatomical, descriptive survey, which was delivered to the Vatican.

Chapel with relics
Urn with relics in Basilica Chapel
Postcard: St Nicholas Center collection

The masonry works at the Basilica lasted four years. During that time the Saint's bone remains, arranged in a fenestrated wooden box, were placed in the Basilica's Chapel of the Sacrament where they could be venerated by the faithful. In 1957 the sacred bones were returned to their stone niche below the main altar of the rebuilt Basilica Crypt.

Before they returned to the crypt, further study was carried out to try to obtain a general reconstruction of the Saint's entire bodily figure, with his proportional, anthropometric image. This study was conducted by me in the night between 5 and 6 May 1957, in the presence of the prior, Father Girolamo. I was also very well assisted in this by Dr. Luigi Venezia of Bari, and by the photographer Michele Ficarelli of Bari. The silence in the Basilica was great and our anxieties were strong. For this purpose, I had prepared various operating equipment, including a radiological apparatus, an epidiascopic projector on wheels to project onto a wall screen, and appropriate common metric measuring instruments. A large white drawing sheet, like a screen, was fixed on the wall. It was square, two meters on each side. All the bones were measured on the three spatial planes, one after the other, and photographed next to a decimetre.

The skull was photographed on the three spatial planes (keeping the horizontalized glabella-inium diameter as the primary cranial axis and as a fixed proportional reference parameter), and also on the most important oblique planes. It was x-rayed, as well as measured metrically.

We then moved on to the total reconstruction of the broken skeleton, that, fortunately, was made possible by the adequacy of the existing bones. For this purpose I used the episcopic projector, employing normal bone figures taken from anatomical Atlantis. Once the median vertical line of the body was fixed on the wall panel, I began the skeletal reconstruction, gradually ascending from bottom to top, starting with the back of the feet, drawing the contours of the projected existing bones on the wall panel, and using the correspondences of symmetry between the two sides. When a piece of bone was incomplete, I looked for its precise fit within the corresponding figure of the projected anatomical table, suitably varying distance and focus. In this way I immediately obtained, on the wall screen, all of the representation of the whole bone under examination, both in the existing part and in the proportionate missing part.

Ultimately, following all the precautions dictated by reconstructive forensic medicine, the total height of the skeleton of the Saint was 1.67 meters. The skull resulted, of the total facial height, of cm. 22.7, with a frontal height of cm. 10.5, with a maximum longitudinal diameter of cm. 18.5, with a transverse biparietal diameter of cm. 13.6, of the diameter bony giabello-iniaco of cm. 17.5. Cranial index 77.6 (at the transition between sub-dolichocephalic and mesathicephalic).

As regards the study of the skull, I obviously also used my previous anatomical studies, which, as early as 1950, had highlighted that the skull (rigid, non-deformable and intrinsically proportionate with the brain itself) can be geometrised. Therefore, using as a fixed horizontalized parameter, the external glabella-inium median sagittal diameter, (centesimal to intrinsic proper meter, called hecatimeric from écaton cento), I obtained the three fixed spatial planes, (lateral, frontal, axial), and the relative maps, meters and coordinates. These allowed me to build a life-size cranial icon of St. Nicholas in contemporary stereological trivision. All the encephalic points acquired their own three fixed, real Cartesian coordinates with respect to the fixed glabella point.

St Nicholas skull
Skull of St. Nicholas
(in the coordinated trivision)
St Nicholas
Identikit attempt

After the skeletal reconstruction, I tried to make an identikit of the saint's entire physical figure. This led me to look for pictorial images of the Saint that were closest to my figural reconstructions. I found one in the mosaic of the apse of the Basilica of S. Marco in Venice. Another is one found in a painting conserved in the Provincial Art Gallery of Bari (Pinacoteca Provinciale di Bari). Finally, I also attempted various identikits of the face of the Saint, drawing around the bony outline of the skull-facial skeleton, the respective soft skin parts, from various angles, always obtaining faces that resembled each other. All the particularities of the operations, all the figures, and the metric tables, are reported in my publication on the Reliquie di San Nicola, printed in 1988 under the aegis of the Dominican Father Gerardo Cioffari, the learned director of the Centro Studi Nicolaiani in Bari.

St Nicholas
St. Mark's Basilica: Basin of the apse with the mosaic of S. Nicolò
Postcard: St Nicholas Center Collection
St Nicholas
Provincial Art Gallery of Bari
Photo: artsupp

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The Relics in the Lido of Venice — 1992

Lido church
Lido of Venice: Church of San Nicolò

This publication reached the ecclesiastical authorities of Venice. They also needed to clarify the bone remains in the Church of S. Nicolò. For centuries great solemnity had been given to the Church of S. Nicolò on the Lido. In fact, every year the Sagra della Sensa was held on Ascension Day to celebrate the famous ceremony of the Marriage of Venice to the Sea. It culminated with the Doge's precious ring falling from the sumptuous ship, the Bucintoro, into the waters of the Adriatic, at the entrance to Lido's port.

Lido festival
St. Nicholas of Lido: Festival of "la Sensa"

In fact, nothing precise had ever been known about the contents of the chests. Not that surveys hadn't been done, but never anatomical! Therefore doubts had slowly crept in as to whether these bones really belonged to the Saint!

There had been six investigations already carried out before my 1988 publication. The first was in 1134, the second in 1282, the third in 1347, the fourth in 1399, the fifth in 1449, and the sixth in 1634. All ceremonial, canonical, and external surveys, the seals, the external leaden plaques of recognition, the internal jar containing Manna in the large chest referring to our Saint were checked. In fact, of the three chests, the largest one referred to St. Nicholas the Great; the two smallest, to S. Nicola avuncle (i.e. uncle of the same name) and to S. Teodoro, martyr. Everything was always shrouded in mystery. It was shocking when after the second, third and fourth investigations, they were each strangely followed by the sudden death of the Abbots of the Convent of S. Nicolò. The mystery deepened even more when at the fifth investigation—according to the description left by the chronicler of the time Zorzi Dolfin—in the large "S. Nicola Magno" chest even a skull was found! Absolutely amazing!

All these disconcerting data therefore persuaded the Venetians and the Patriarch of Venice himself, Cardinal Marco Cè, to clarify the facts once and for all, by calling for a new examination in 1991. One that would be definitive, explicitly anatomical, and to be entrusted to highly competent experts and university professors.

This seventh Lido examination was carried out precisely on 17 September 1992, on all three chests transported by Venetian sailors to the Lido. The results are as follows.

The small chest for the martyr St. Theodore contained, like relics, simply a few brownish fragments and fragments of bone.

The small chest for S.Nicola avuncle (S. Nicola non Magno), contained a whole, well-preserved brownish skeleton of a male human subject of advanced age, with a large skull. Also present is the laryngeal skeleton and no bone fragments.

The large chest was registered (by means of an external plaque) to S. Nicola Manno, Archbishop of Myra, with Tapino's signature. According to the erudite Father Gerardo Cioffari, this designation was actually used in those times as a sign of the person's great humility. Inside there was another significant detail. a precious jar containing condensed Manna.

The anatomical content turned out to consist of: a) two detached skeletons of adult subjects, subtotal (one male, with skull, and one female), brownish, together with a 5-year-old boy's half-jaw; b) a conspicuous accumulation of shapeless, whitish bone fragments.

Faced with this unexpected find, the mystery increased so much as to induce the investigators to declare the lack of agreement between the anatomy and the history, and to close the works with a Declaration of "Non-existence of Nicolaian relics" in Venice. This authoritative response left the Venetians and the Patriarch himself dumbfounded and dismayed. However, their intuition was that it would be right to ask, if still possible, to collaborate with the Bari investigator from 1957 before having to inevitably give up the precise historical references, which are generally highly reliable.

So it was that on 6 October 1992, I was invited to collaborate in solving this problem. The request was obviously followed by my prompt acceptance, so that I was able on 11 and 12 November 1992, to carry out the eighth investigation in Lido. It was conducted in the Convent in the presence of Mons. Renato Volo, the superior of the Convent, Father Giambattista Grassato, with the help of Father Ludovico Secco, and an equipped photographer. It turned out that the anatomical findings corresponded in fact to those already declared.

St Nicholas bones in Venice-Lido
The bones of St. Nicholas in Venice-Lido

However, my attention was strongly attracted to the "strange" large pile of fragments. They were also a "strange" color, not brownish but whitish, all in the same way. These "white bone fragments" had escaped the consideration of previous scholars and removed from the interpretation of their meaning, which nevertheless existed and which nevertheless had to be defined for the sake of a complete investigation.

At the same time I had the intuition that the investigators had been misled, twice. Once, because they expected to find only brownish bone pieces, well preserved and recognizable, corresponding to those absent in Bari. Second, because the presence of foreign skeletons, not indicated from the outside, had made them exclude, by itself, any reliability of the seals and indications transmitted by history.

Therefore, first of all, I wanted to delve into the more detailed historical information, which can be found in the accounts by Nicephorus and the Archdeacon Giovanni. In fact, these immediately changed my relying on the state of the bones in current discoveries.

The bones of the Saint, present in Venice Lido, could only be in the form of a large mass of shapeless fragments! And not otherwise! In fact, Nicephorus says in a point of his story about the penetration into the tomb of the Saint, "After this, that impetuous man (Matteo) boldly placed himself entirely in front of the Saint and had no hesitation (as has been said). He zealously descended with both his shoes into the sacred tomb. Entering it, he immersed his hands in the liquid and found the holy relics floating." Archdeacon Giovanni in turn says, "When all the limbs were placed on the ground in a confused and random way, the head was still missing. Since they could not find it, they became a little sad. For that reason the young man (Matteo), bending down, he did not look for it as before by only immersing his hands in the abundant liquid, but began to look here and there for the holy head, even putting his feet inside (as it was necessary to do) with reckless audacity, in the end, having found it, he came out with his clothes and his whole body wet.

Bones in Bari and Venice
The bones of St. Nicholas
Black: in Bari
White: in Venice-Lido (crushed)
Reconstruction of Lido bones
Remains present in Venice-Lido: Ideal reconstruction of white fragments

The fervor of the excited sailor, named Matteo, had unfortunately collided with a poor skeleton that had been weakened for more than 700 years! The delicate bones of the chest (vertebrae, ribs, and shoulder girdle), the bones of the neck and part of the upper limbs had by now been irreparably crushed by his shoes and fallen into the tomb in a shapeless pile of fragments.

Bone fragments
The white fragments

But in the Lido of Venice they were finally able to receive their due recognition! A shiver runs through my breast even now as I think back to the immense danger to which they were exposed, of their inexorable, eternal loss, if their hasty disavowal had been accepted. History and anatomy could instead be reconciled once again! The particularly uniform whiteness of the fragments was to be attributed to the special uniform treatment, unknown to us, that the pious guardian monks, after having patiently collected all the fragments, had subjected them for a decade or more.

All that remained for me now was to arrive at a final, convincing interpretation of the coexistence of extraneous skeletons in the chest with the name of the Saint.

However, it was not difficult for me to guess that the extraneousness was actually attributable to the white Nicolaian fragments, which were hidden by the custodian monks in a wooden chest that belonged to a family, with a young son. These host characters will remain anonymous to us. The Mirense monks were smart to hide the crushed Holy Relics inside an anonymous chest, but not so smart to put the precious chest right behind the main altar of the cathedral church of Myra. This was where, obviously, the Venetians looked upon their arrival in the city.

My report to the Patriarch of Venice was dated May 6, 1993, and presented to the Prelate on the following July 15. All that remains for me now is to hope that the bone relics of St. Nicholas, finally discovered, albeit shattered, in the Lido of Venice, will be removed as soon as possible from the ancient wooden chest that has housed them for centuries and therefore be placed today in a precious urn in their own right.

Three men
Patriarch Card. Marco Ce, Prof. Luigi Martino, Father Giambattista Grassato, Venice, July 15, 1993

This is so that the faithful can see again, among those tormented and humiliated bone residues, a big heart filled with love, and generous hands that always gave so much to all those in need who turned to the Saint.

It is my hope that our Saint Nicholas will be twinned forever, with his sacred seal of love, to the two most beautiful cities of the Adriatic that host him, Bari and Venice. And it is also my hope that, from this splendid junction that unites East and West, he will continue to urge people to seek mutual encounter, sincere understanding, mutual tolerance, and finally brotherhood, that leads to the only feeling that is a harbinger of true peace among peoples.

By Luigi Martino, San Nicola: la Grande Avventura, 1994, in Italian

Images from Luigi Martino, unless otherwise noted.

Prof. Luigi Martino was born October 8, 1908, in Bari. A doctor, he was professor from 1937 to 1972 at the University of Bari on the Faculty of Medicine, Pharmacy, Natural Sciences, of Normal Human Anatomy, Histology and Embryology. He has published university textbooks on anatomy. Histology and embryology. He is the author of numerous scientific publications on macroscopic anatomy, microscopic, proportionalistic, radiological and mathematical. Specialist in Radiology and Physiotherapy, he was Director of the Institute of Normal Human Anatomy of the University of Bari for five years (between 1942 and 1950, with commendation from the Faculty of Medicine). He was Regional Medical Consultant of the Pontifical Assistance Service.

Offerta di Investimento Industriale, in Italian and English

Luigi Martino Homepage

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