Is St. Nicholas in Venice, too?

Church building
Chiesa di San Nicoló, the Lido of Venice
Three carved statues
Ss. Theodore, Nicholas of Myra, Nicholas, the uncle
Photo:Venezia Pravoslavie
Altar with statues
High altar, reliquary for Ss. Theodore, Nicholas of Myra, Nicholas uncle
Photo:Venezia Pravoslavie

After Myra fell to the Seljuk Turks in 1071, Adriatic rivals Bari and Venice were in competition to bring the relics of Saint Nicholas to their cities. The Bari expedition, with three ships, sixty-two sailors and two priests, beat out the Venetians and the relics arrived in Bari on May 9, 1087.

Venetians also find bones in Myra

However, that is not the end of the story. Ventians left by sea for the First Crusade in 1099. On their way, the ship called in at Myra. At that time the Church of Saint Nicholas was nearly deserted, as the priests and local faithful, afraid of the Turks, celebrated Divine Liturgy just once a month. When the Venetians arrived at the church, they, like the Barians, tried flattery and then threats. They then found three well-protected boxes, containing the remains of two bishops, Ss. Theodore and Nicholas, the uncle of Nicholas of Myra. These were taken to the ship. Several sailors returned to the church. Following a sweet scent, they broke through the floor, and several more layers, until they came to a copper urn engraved "Here lies the Great Bishop Nicholas, Glorious on Land and Sea."

The sailors quickly took their treasure to the ship. A large box of relics and money were given to the Archbishop to cover the cost of repairing the church. The fleet of two hundred ships continued on its way to Palestine.

At the end of the First Crusade in 1101, the ships returned to Venice. Just as it had been in Bari, there was disagreement about where the relics were to be kept. Some put forward the Basilica di San Marco until a new church could be built, named for the saint. In the end the abbot of the San Nicoló del Lido monastery prevailed as there was already a church dedicated to Saint Nicholas on the Lido.

The bones were secured in the center of the choir in a strong fortified tower while a new worthy church was built. Upon completion of the church, the relics were placed beneath the high altar.

Where are the Real Relics? Bari? or Venice?

Thus began centuries of challenge and dispute between Bari and Venice—who really had the relics of Saint Nicholas? Bari had always refused to open the tomb. The Venetians had only seen their bones, but never had them examined. Both cities laid claim to the true relics.

Solving the riddle

Luigi Martino, anatomy professor at the University of Bari, had carried out thorough anatomical examination of the bones in Bari in 1953 and 1957. They had been removed during repairs to the crypt and he took careful measurements and thousands of photographs and x-rays. In 1992 he was asked to examine the relics held at the Lido.

Condition of the bones

The Venetian bones were broken in many small pieces and fragments, perhaps as many as 500. They were a whitish gray color, probably because they had been stored in an open dry container, maybe even in the sun. This would also make the bones brittle and vulnerable to breakage. One source asserts that they had been stored in lime for 230 years. If so, that would also explain the color and condition, which is the same for the Bari bones.

Pile of bones
Bones from the Lido of Venice
Photo: Venezia Pravoslavie
Altar with statues
Stone engraved in Greek, "Humble Nicholas myrrh-streaming relics"

In addition to the bone fragments, a jar of manna and a black stone inscribed with the saint's name help confirm identity. The top of the left long arm bone had a sharp cut such as would be made to remove a relic piece, indicating the bone belonged to a person who was the object of veneration.


Luigi Martino concluded that the fragments of bones in Venice were complementary to the bones in Bari. They are from the skeleton of the same man.
The black bones are in Bari
The white bones (crushed) are in the Lido of Venice
Diagram: Bollettino di San Nicola
Used by permission

The many small pieces found in Venice are consistent with accounts of the Bari sailors, in great haste, gathering up nearly all of the larger pieces, thus leaving the smaller ones, before hurrying back to their ships.

The accounts tell how the tomb was opened, the cover pulverized, so many small bits of marble would have fallen onto the skeleton. Then impetuous sailor Matteo stepped down into the coffin, still wearing shoes. So, it should be no surprise that the femers were broken off, described as "with an ax." The heads of both femers and most of the ribs are among the bones in Venice, areas easily crushed by two feet.

Professor Martino concluded that the humble remains in Venice are not, and should not be considered, less important than those in Bari.

Lido relics
Lido bone fragments
Photo: Centro Studi Nicolaiani, Bari, Italy
Used by permission
Inscription behind the high altar, identifying the relics of
Nicholas of Myra, Theodore, and Nicholas the other
Photo: Jeff Erickson, used by permission
Brass plaque
Plaque commemorating the 1992 identification and canonical recognition
Photo: Jeff Erickson, used by permission

After 891 years the mystery and dispute between Bari and Venice had ended—both are home to Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, Saint in Bari and the Lido of Venice.

The Real Face of St. Nicholas
Developed using data from the 1957 examination and modern forensic science
Anatomical Examination of the Bari Relics
The only thorough identification and cataloging of the relics
St. Nicholas in the Antalya Museum
Examination of the museum's bones
How Saint Nicholas May Have Looked
Several interpretations based on data and digital techniques
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
by lead investigator Luigi Martino

In another section

Relics of St. Nicholas—Where are They?
Many places claim St. Nicholas


More photos and information in Russian

"Ma le ossa sono tutte a Bari?" and "Ci sono ossa di San Nicola anche a Venezia?" La Cripta della Basilica di San Nicola
"Chiesa di San Nicoló (Lido)," Wikipedia
"San Nicola di Bari," Parrocchia S. Nicoló Ganzirri

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