Eastern and Western Christians United Like Brothers in St. Nicholas Name

by Aristides Panotis1

I dedicate this text to the memory of my master Prof. Gregorios Papamichail, who introduced me, when still a child, to the study of the sacred literature, and who reposed in the Lord the day of his feast, 58 years ago, in 1956.
— author's note

Dome in St Nicholas Church, Myra-Demre
Fresco, St Nicholas Church Myra/Demre
Photo: C Myers

We are in the middle of a tempest that is pushing our families and our people into its waves. We implore, therefore, the Saint of the sea, the bishop of Myra, to calm the storm, especially in this week of January during which for 100 years, both East and West pray together to better understand Christ's commandment about the unity of the Church, as a model and for the salvation of mankind.

This popular Saint, Nicholas, was born in Patara, a Greek city, and was ordained bishop in Myra during a difficult period, when there were persecutions and there were ongoing debates to define Trinitarian doctrine. In Myra he revealed himself a rule of faith and an image of meekness, a model of love for the poor, the widows, the orphans, and defender of victims of injustice on the part of lay authorities. Furthermore, he distinguished himself for his kindness toward children.

After his death, around the year AD 341, the place of his burial quickly became a sacred place. Devoted pilgrims came in the hope of taking part in his graces and to experience his sanctity.

At the beginning, his tomb was crowned only by a chapel or martyrion, but the growing pilgrimages made it necessary (according to a tradition already attested in the 4th century) to build a new basilica, into which to translate his body. His relics were probably not put under the altar, but in an urn or movable reliquary, in order to make it easier to venerate and take the relics around in procession, as was already the custom in the East. Until our times there is not a case to be found of a Christian bishop's body being put in a pagan sarcophagus. That's why, until the 11th century, some of these relics were distributed for the blessing and consecration of churches.

Church in Myra
Basilica church in Myra
Postcard: St Nicholas Center Collection
Myra Church
St Nicholas Church, Myra/Demre
Photo: J Rosenthal
Sarcophagus, Demre
Sarcophagus, Demre church
Photo: C Myers

The first basilica was destroyed by an earthquake in the year AD 529. Justinian, a very open minded man, well aware of the charitable good works carried out by St Nicholas, built a new basilica. Even this one was destroyed by Arab incursions around the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

In the meantime, beginning in the 6th century, someone began to write some of the Saint's miracles. They spread in different versions, like the Praxis de Stratelatis and the Praxis de Tributo. These episodes, describing the saint, spread and inspired the redaction of his official biography written by Michael the Archimandrite (710-720). This biography influenced the Encomium of the Man of God by Andrew of Crete, and the Encomia by Saint Patriarch Methodius and by Emperor Leo VI, the Wise.

Between the 8th and 9th centuries a more detailed Life appeared, taken into account by Simeon Metaphrastes in the 10th century for his Synaxarium, that defined St Nicholas' history and cult in both Eastern and Western churches.

In the year 1071 came the dramatic day when Romanos IV Diogenes and the Byzantine army, undefeated until that moment, was defeated at the Battle of Manzikert (now in Armenia). The emperor was captured by the sultan Alp Arslan, known in history as the scourge of God. The Byzantines were subjected to a humiliating condition as the hordes of the Seljuk Turks invaded Asia Minor, erasing every past civilization.

The ruins of Christian basilicas in Anatolia, Isauria, Pamphilia and Lycia are still present, giving witness to the barbarian conquest, that slowly expanded to Syria and Palestine. Only then did Europeans decide to move, organizing the first Crusade.

The city of Myra (today Demre) was four kilometers from Andriake (today Kale), its natural harbour. The inhabitants, thanks to the exports from this harbour, must have lived a good life, at least judging by the wonderful sarcophagues in their cemeteries, that were used by the Myrians until the 4th century. In the year AD 129 emperor Hadrian built a granary; its ruins are still visible. This shows that Andriake was an active port, a center of commerce, until the end of 9th century when the western coasts of Asia Minor and the Smyrna region fell under the dominion of the Turkish Eeir Tsacha, who spread terror and instability everywhere.

In the meantime Alexius' Christian kingdom was under attack in the East by the Turks, while the Normans were putting an end to the Byzantine administration in Calabria and Magna Graecia. At that time the Barians faced a serious commercial crisis. That's why they attempted a final dangerous commercial mission to Antioch, on ships commanded by Albert, Summissimus and Johannoccarus. Having finished the commercial operation, they gathered and decided to stop in Andriake on the way back to venerate the relics of a Saint that already had several churches in Bari.

St. Nicholas' Basilica in Myra was, at that time a monastery. The monks were continuously threatened by Turkish incursions that made pilgrimages dangerous and could even violate or destroy the Saint's urn. Besides, it was impossible to transfer the relics to Constantinople without putting them at serious risk. The monks thought that the only way to save St Nicholas' relics would be a translation. Consequently, when the Barian ships stopped in Andriake on the way back to the West, the monks saw their opportunity. This explains why the memory of this exodus in the Menologium of our Church on May the 10th, is expressed in terms of a peaceful advancing of a procession: Commemoration of the sacred relics of Saint Nicholas Archbishop of Myra, Miracle-worker, proceeding towards Rome.

This motif was put in verses by Stephen in his canon (Cryptoferr B 14), by Viktor Klapatzaras and Nikodimos Aghiorites in their Akolouthias. In liturgical terminology Proodos means bringing a venerated object in procession (as for instance the Holy Cross the first of August or sacred relics of the saints) in order to bless places and the faithful. Mentioning Rome as the place toward which the translation moves is probably to be connected with the Emperor Alexius' initiative to start a theological dialogue with the powerful Pope Gregory VII, in view of preparing a common military operation against God's enemies who were about to invade Asia Minor. Unfortunately, this step did not happen and the Turks were in a position to possibly steal or destroy the urn of St Nicholas relics.

That's why the relics were translated silently, accompanied by a monk, to the first ship. It was the responsibility of the monks who remained in the monastery to conceal what had happened from the Turks, and to free the faithful from fear, that when the Barian sailors were already far enough away, sailing in the waters of Peloponnese and Ionian Islands, the monks pretended to be victims of a theft. In the presence of the monk who accompanied the relics, the sailors stopped in some harbours to let people enjoy the blessing of the relics. This explains why in some places the translation liturgy is celebrated on a few different days.

In the afternoon, Sunday, the 9th of May 1087, the three ships entered the Bari harbor. The sailors tried to tell the authorities about the arrival of the precious relics in order to receive an official welcome. But it wasn't possible. Since 1071 the city had been under the Normans, and Prince Bohemund, Lord of Bari, had gone to Rome, together with Duke Roger, on the occasion of the consecration of the new Pope Victor III. The Archbishop of Bari Urso was at Canusium with his archdeacon John. It was therefore Elias, abbot of the local Benedictine monastery, who, aided by the monk from Myra, convinced the captains to entrust the relics to his monastery.

Elias was of Greek origin, descending from an aristocratic local Byzantine family. Once the relics were in the new monastery, they were venerated just like, until recently, they had been in the monastery in Myra. While the relics were deposited in St Benedict (today St Michael), a nearby cell was reserved for the monk who had accompanied them from Myra.

Archbishop Urso arrived in Bari on the 11th of May and ordered the relics to be brought to the cathedral church. After serious opposition on the part of the people, a compromise was reached on these terms: the relics had to be kept in the chapels of St Sophia, Saint Eustratius and St Demetrius until the time when the new church, granted by Duke Roger to be built on the place of the former residence of the Byzantine Catepans (governors, would be ready to host the relics.

After two years, thanks to great work by the same Abbot Elias, the crypt was ready to receive the relics. Archbishop Urso had died in February 1089, and the Abbot Elias was elected by all the people to be archbishop of Bari. Meanwhile the French Benedictine Oddo of Lagery had become pope, with the name Urban II. The new Archbishop of Bari, Elias, invited the pope to consecrate the crypt and put St Nicholas' relics in the urn under the altar. As there were still dissensions in Rome, while the pope was traveling in southern Italy, he tried to convoke a council to gain the support of the Greek bishops of Calabria, who had been worried since 1071 about what would happen to their churches under Norman domination.

In Constantinople, the fact that the pope was concerned about the remnants of the Greek Church in South Italy, and his welcoming St Nicholas' relics, convinced the emperor to answer positively the request to open a dialogue to reach full communion between the two parts of the same Church (as much later Marc Eugenikos, bishop of Ephesus, would have said), and so to face together the incursions of people of other religions coming from the East.

This was the background of the Council of Bari of 1098, in which the question of the procession of the Holy Spirit was debated. Unfortunately, the intervention of Anselm, father of Scolasticism, brought the dialogue to an impasse, causing the so hoped for alliance to fail.

Anyway, news about the Seljuk Turks harsh attacks against Christians and their advancing towards the Holy Land had reached Bari already in 1089 when the pope consecrated the crypt. Only few years later, in the Council of Clermont (1095), with the help of four Latin European countries, Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade that, because of the strong resistance by the Turks, only through much bloodshed succeeded in conquering Jerusalem.

Basilica in Bari
Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Italy
Photo: C Myers

Abbot Elias had a major role in building the basilica in Bari. Therefore, when he died (23 May 1105), he had the great honor to be buried in the crypt. Not far away from him Albert, the captain who transported the relics, was buried, together with at least seventeen sailors, out of the 62 who brought the relics to Bari. The Basilica was completed at the end of 12th century as it is written in the dedication inscription on the main facade dated 1197. For more than eight centuries it was a very active pilgrimage center for the people of the Adriatic and of all Europe.

In the year 1861 (with the establishment of Italy as a unified state) the administration of the basilica underwent major changes. This circumstance very much worried Czar Alexander II, who was concerned about what would happen to the relics of Russia's national Saint. In 1862 he bought, without asking for the Ecumenical Patriarchate's permission, the St. Nicholas Basilica in Myra from a Turkish owner. Restoration works very likely were intended to create the conditions to receive at least some of the Saint's relics that could be donated by the Italians. However, the Metropolitan of Pisidia, who had ecclesiastical jurisdiction in that area, intervened and stopped the program of pan-Slavizism.

The Italian government, that had occupied Lycia during the First World war, showed a certain interest in the basilica in Myra. However, not later, due to the fact that Italy was satisfied to obtain (Treaty of Lausanne, 1923) the Dodecanese. In 1927, in the atmosphere of the future agreements with the Holy See (Lateran Treaty, 1929), the Italian government promoted significant restoration works of the basilica that lasted until 1932.

In 1951 Pope Pius XII entrusted the basilica in Bari to the Dominican Friars, who had been in Bari since 1286. Two years later he licensed general work of restoration of the crypt, the underground church where the Saint's relics rest. An Episcopal commission was instituted to follow these works. In 1953 it was decided to remove the sacred urn of St. Nicholas to check the conditions of the bones and to submit them to a scientific examination.

Basilica in Bari
Bones when tomb opened
Photo: Bollettino di San Nicola

The urn was opened in the presence of the general Master of the Dominicans, Fr. Michael Browne; Professor of Anatomy at Bari University, Luigi Martino, and the expert of skeletal recomposition, Dr. Alfredo Ruggeri. After opening the urn they observed that only part of the skeleton had been brought from Myra in 1087, and the bones were exactly as they had been put into the urn by Pope Urban II, 865 years before (1089).

The pope put the skull above the rest in order to give the image of the entire skeleton. It can be inferred that during the seven centuries when the body rested in Myra a part of the bones had been distributed, as was usual at that time, for the consecration of sanctuaries, the dedication of churches and monasteries that were built in his honour and probably as precious antidora for imperial donations.

In Constantinople there were at that time five churches consecrated to St. Nicholas that possessed a relic to exhibit for veneration, as it was ruled by Canon 7 of the VII Ecumenical Council of 787 AD. In this way the 203 Saint's bones distributed between the IVth century and 1087 constituted 48% of the entire skeleton, while 52% arrived in Bari.2

Sketch of St Nicholas face
Sketch by Luigi Martino
Bollettino di San Nicola
Russian icon
Russian icon of St Nicholas
St Nicholas Center Collection

As a matter of fact the examination of 1953 revealed that the following bones were missing: left sternum and some vertebrae, the ribs of the thorax, and some cervical vertebrae; as for the upper limbs, the left arm and the elbow, part of the right arm, as well as the phalanxes of the Saint's hands are missing. From the lower limbs the left tibia, the sacrum and the hip are missing, and, also, some bones of the pelvis, some of the fibula, the tarsus of the right foot, the phalanxes of the toes, and some other parts. The only entire relic is the skull, that Prof. Alfredo Ruggeri studied in order to reconstruct the Saint's true cast of features, and, with general surprise, the reconstruction of the face muscles brought back to life the true image of the Saint, that corresponds to the iconographic tradition of the East. In this way the authenticity of the skull was shown, proving that the memory the church had carried for seventeen centuries and transmitted to Orthodox and Catholic faithful was the true image of the Saint. This is a reminder of their common origin.

And it is exactly this aspect that the two churches make clear through the processions and pilgrimages to Bari of so many bishops of the two churches who come to venerate together the Saint: practically, St. Nicholas has already united as brothers Eastern and Western Christians!

Orthodox chapel
Orthodox Chapel in the crypt of the Basilica di San Nicola
Photo: C Myers

Since 1966 there is an Orthodox Chapel in the Basilica of St Nicholas in Bari where the Orthodox can regularly celebrate the liturgy, as it was in the 14th century where Latin priests could celebrate in St. Sophia in Constantinople. It has to be underscored that never, I repeat never, in the thousand years of non-communion between the two apostolic centers of the Old and the New Rome, has the canonical validity of the priestly ordinations in the two churches been questioned by councils or by significant theologians, because to affirm invalidity or no-ordination is an unforgivable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Only in Greece could we find such a theological poverty where people, lacking historical vision, "are persuaded of false slanders and arrive to put into doubt sure and well firm truths," as Peter of Antioch wrote in 1054 to the uncompromising Michael Cerularius (pg 129, 809). Victims of an insane anti-ecumenical syndrome, they try with confessional terrorism to cancel ten centuries from the life of the church, often with the support and the blessing of ambitious bishops.

Anyway, the church lives and advances following our Savior's will, and, in 1984, two holy men, Pope John Paul II and Chrysostomos Konstantinidis, then Metropolitan of Myra, together filled the lamp that burns beside St. Nicholas' tomb with oil from Myra and from Apulia.

Pope & Metropolitan
Pope John Paul II with Chrysostomos Konstantinidis, Metropolitan of Myra
Dowry fresco
Recently restored fresco, St Nicholas giving dowry gold
Photo: Michael Porter

As devotion toward St. Nicholas has become truly ecumenical, in the same way, thanks to the 1964 historical encounter in Jerusalem between the Pope and the Patriarch, interest in Myra and the place of our Saint's ministry and burial has become international. In 1965 the German Institute of Archaeology started excavations in the area of the Basilica of Myra. Between 1991 and 2005 the Archaeological Department of the Turkish Government, thanks to funds of various Institutions, has promoted the restoration and consolidation of the frescoes of the Basilica. From that time the significance of the Basilica of Myra has become more and more evident, especially for the Christian World. In fact the canonical Metropolitan of Myra, Rev. Chrysostomos Kalaitzis, celebrates regularly every December and has taken on himself the charge of drawing out of stones true sons of Abraham.

Translated from the Greek into Italian by Fr. Rosario Scognamiglio, priest in the Order of Preachers, Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Italy

1. About the author, Aristides Panotis, by P. Rosario Scognamiglio, Dominican, Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Italy

Aristides Panotis is widely known to the Orthodox public (in Greece and abroad) as the editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Morals in twelve volumes and as editor of the review "Orthodox Presence." In the past he has been one of the closest aides to Patriarch Athenagoras, who put him in charge of public relations and research in the historical and theological field. An echo of that wide ranging collaboration was a praiseworthy monograph entitled: The Peacemakers (Athens, Dragan European Foundation, 1973) on the encounter between Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem (1964), as well as his cooperation in editing the Acts of the first and the third Panorthodox Conference.

At the present time he is continuing with interventions and conferences witnessing to his ecumenical convictions, faithful to Athenagoras’ heritage. A few days before the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 29th of January 2013, he made an interesting contribution with this article on St Nicholas, carrying the significant title: "Christians of the East and of the West United as Brothers in the Name of St Nicholas."

The Web-Site Amen.gr spread the Greek text of this article, together with iconographic and photographic illustrations.

Because of this background Father Gerardo Cioffari, director of the Centro Studi Nicolaiani, enthusiastically welcomed my idea to make an Italian translation from the Greek, because it is strongly in accord with the ecumenical trend of our St Nicholas News.

2. This interpretation doesn't take into account the bones that were brought to Venice in 1099. Examination of the bones at the Lido of Venice in 1992 concluded that they are complementary to the bones in Bari and are from the same skeleton. See Is St. Nicholas in Venice, too?

Note from Father Gerardo Cioffari:
About a month ago [March 2013] our Orthodox student Nicephorus drew fr Rosario's attention to an article that appeared on the Internet site Amen.gr. Signed by Aristides Panotis the article had this title: "The Saint that Joins as Brothers Eastern and Western Christians." Fr Rosario Scognamiglio, a Dominican of our Basilica who lived many years in Greece, translated it into Italian. I was very much surprised, because I have been accustomed to Greek anti-ecumenical voices. On the contrary, Panotis is not only ecumenically minded, but has no fear to state his opinion. The great joy in reading his article about St Nicholas was increased by the fact that he was very close to the Patriarch Athenagoras, a man that I loved since my youth.

From St. Nicholas News, #53, translated from the Italian by Fr. Gerardo Cioffari, o.p., director of Centro Studi Nicolaiani, Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Italy. Used by permission. Greek text on Amen.gr.

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