Saint in Bari
How did the Bishop of Myra become ‘Saint in Bari’? It’s a long way from Lycia to the eastern coast of Italy.
St. Nicholas’ tomb in Myra was a popular place of pilgrimage. As Myra was a seaport, sailors heard the stories of the saint’s shrine and carried them to many distant places. If a town were fortunate enough to host such a significant religious site, besides blessing and prestige, it enjoyed considerable commercial benefit because pilgrims needed to be housed, fed, and otherwise provided for. After Myra fell under the control of the Seljuks, who were not sympathetic to Christian faith, Italian merchants in both Venice and Bari, saw an opportunity to bring such advantage to their cities. Their motives were opportunistic, but also spiritual, as there was real fear that pilgrimage could become difficult and dangerous or that the shrine might even be desecrated.
Early in 1087, three ships with sailors and merchants from Bari stopped in Myra on their way home from Antioch. When they visited Nicholas’ tomb, the monks showed them where the manna was extracted. The sailors then asked where the saint’s body lay. The monks, perhaps naively, showed them. But the monks became suspicious and questioned the visitors about their intentions, “Surely you do not intend to take the saint’s remains to your own region? If so, we won’t allow it.” However, in the end the Barians prevailed and broke open the tomb with an iron bar. The sailors spirited the bones away to the ship, escaping just ahead of the townspeople coming in hot pursuit.
The men of Bari sailed away on the long voyage back to the southeast coast of Italy. Before getting there, they stopped at a nearby port to make a beautiful box (casket) to hold the saint’s relics. When they arrived in Bari, May 9, 1087, the townspeople thronged to the harbor to welcome the saint’s remains. The returning men made a solemn vow to build a magnificent church to honor St. Nicholas.
The crypt was completed by October 1089 and Pope Urban II laid the relics of St. Nicholas beneath the crypt’s altar, consecrating a shrine that became one of medieval Europe’s great pilgrimage centers. The main church was built in ten years, but it wasn’t until the middle of the 12th century that the imposing and majestic Basilica di San Nicola was complete. It is a particularly fine example of Romanesque architecture and served as a prototype for many other churches and cathedrals.
As many faithful pilgrims journeyed to Bari to honor St. Nicholas, he became known as Saint in Bari. Pilgrims were particularly attracted because the tomb continued to exude the manna of the saint just as it had in Myra. From the earliest time St. Nicholas devotees have asked for protection and health in mind and body through the use of the manna (click for more). It was diluted and made available in bottles decorated with images of the saint. Over the centuries a unique art of painting these glass bottles developed in Apulia. Every year the translation of the Nicholas relics to Bari is celebrated with a great festival which culminates in the extraction of the manna by the rector of the Basilica.
Extracting the manna, 2012
Since 1951 the basilica had been home to a community of Dominican Friars and is now an active ecumenical center. In 1966, at one side of the crypt, an Orthodox chapel was established to provide for Orthodox liturgy. The ecumenical vision of the Dominican brothers sees St. Nicholas as everyone’s saint, serving to bring together Christians of many varying expressions from both East and West, to worship God in unity, confessing one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In 2018 Pope Francis invited religious leaders from all the Middle East denominations to meet in Bari to pray for peace in the Middle East and an end to conflict in Syria. It would be an “ecumenical meeting for peace to discuss the dramatic situation of the Middle East that afflicts so many brothers and sisters in the faith.” Bari was chosen because it represents the “window into the East” and is also the home of the relics of St Nicholas, who is venerated by the Western and Eastern Christians alike.
The Pope prays before St. Nicholas’ relics in Bari during his ecumenical visit to pray for peace in the Middle East (28 seconds).
The Holy Father, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the elevation of the Basilica of Saint Nicholas of Bari to “Pontifical Basilica”, sent a letter to the Archbishop of Bari-Bitonto, the Pontifical Delegate of the Basilica of Saint Nicholas, saying:
In recent years, the Basilica of Saint Nicholas, so singularly linked to the Holy See, has been able to manifest its specific vocation intended to inspire the journey of Christian unity. This has been facilitated by the sincere devotion to the Holy Bishop of Myra by the faithful of the East and of the West. My thoughts go to all those who in any way have cooperated in liturgical, pastoral, cultural and above all ecumenical activity, the fruits of which I have witnessed personally in my recent visit at the meeting of prayer and reflection with the Heads of Churches present in the Middle East.
I encourage all those who work with different responsibilities in the pastoral care of this historic and famous Basilica to continue their service with a spirit of collaboration and renewed apostolic zeal, helping the pilgrims and the people who visit it and look to it with confidence to rediscover its spiritual importance. It is a matter of promoting in the faithful the path of assiduous search for God, nurtured by intense piety and an insatiable longing for contemplation. Prayer has an extraordinary evangelizing force and is necessary for the achievement of full communion among Christians.
I hope that the significant fiftieth anniversary is also a reason for a renewed interest in the study of the historical events of the Pontifical Basilica, of the figure of Saint Nicholas, as well as of ecumenical theology. Scientific reflection, accompanied by planned cultural manifestations, can be combined with piety, liturgy and worship of the Saint, making a valid contribution to ecumenical relations between Catholic and Orthodox communities.
With these sentiments, invoking the intercession of the Virgin Mary and Saint Nicholas, I cordially impart the Apostolic Blessing to you and to the entire diocesan community ’ … . (from the Vatican, 24 November 2018
Thus confirming the important role of St. Nicholas and the Basilica in fostering Christian unity.
Devotion and Use of the Manna of St. Nicholas
from the Centro Studi Nicolaiani di Bari
More Images from Bari
Translation Monument in San Giorgio
St. Nicholas Shrines in Bari
“Eastern and Western Christians United Like Brothers in St. Nicholas’ Name” by Aristides Panotis
The Silver Rose of St. Nicholas
A unique ecumenical award in honor of St. Nicholas
More about St. Nicholas in Bari in other sections
Translation of Saint Nicholas
Earliest account, written by Nicephorus immediately after the arrival in Bari, May 9, 1087
Translation of Saint Nicholas
13th Century anonymous Greek account
Festival of the Translation of the Relics
May 7-9 each year in Bari, Italy
A Pilgrim’s Experience
First impressions of the Bari May Festival
Is St. Nicholas in Venice, too?
Artist in Bari: Anna Maria Di Terlizzi
Mixed media images of San Nicola
Letter of the Holy Father Francis to the Archbishop of Bario-Bitonto for the 50th anniversary of the elevation of the Basilica of Saint Nicholas of Bari to “Pontifical Basilica”, November 24, 2018