Who was Saint Nicholas?
St. Nicholas is represented on icons very often, probably most frequent than any other saint. The ecclesiastical history records two people with the name “Nicholas”. Both of them are reputed to be holy: Bishop Nicholas of Myra (lived in the 4 th century) and Nicholas of Sion, Bishop of Pinara (died 564).
The Greek Church worshipped the two bishops already since the 6 th century. But in the Occident, the worship concentrated on the Bishop of Myra. His bones were carried off to Bari in the South of Italy. Nicholas was pressumably born in 270 in the small village Patara near Myra, in present-day Turkey. Myra had been a significant town at the Mediterranean coast east of Rhodos. Nowadays, the fishing-village Demre is located at that place. Nicholas was a very faithful man, he became Bishop of Myra and he was highly esteemed by Emperor Constantine in Constantinople.
The worship of Nicholas is based on legends, myths and more than thousand reports from the population. During the Middle Ages he belonged to the “Fourteen Helpers in Need”. Deeds are told of that are difficult to reconcile with the brain.
The eldest report describes that Nicholas saved three men from death in the last minute because they were innocent. In another case he appeared the Emperor in dream and prevented the execution of three generals. They also were condemned innocently and Nicholas discovered that it was a corrupt functionary who had to be blamed for the wrong accusation. Another time he preserved three daughters of a completely indebted man from being sold to a brothel. Nicholas threw three nuggets through the window so that the women were able to purchase the dowry for a marriage.
The next story is quite creepy: A landlady had slain three young men and had them pickled. Nicholas resuscitated them. When Myra was haunted by a famine, Nicholas went to the ships which had loaded wheat for the imperial court. He asked the sailors to deliver him 100 measures of wheat at a time. The sailors did it relunctantly. How should they explain to the court where 100 measures of wheat had gone?
But when the freight was unloaded at the imperial court, not one gram was missing! But the wheat had saved Myra’s population from starvation and it had increased always anew for two years. Further legends narrate of miraculous sick-healings, salvage from distress at sea and Nicholas saved a boy from drowning, brought back an abducted son to his parents and exorcised demons of a poisoned well.
On 6 th December 343, Nicholas died. His compatriots burried him in a “Martyrion”; that was a church which was errected above the tombs of martyrs. This church was extended to a great Nicholas Basilica. Already shorly after his death, he was worshipped as a saint. People went on a pilgrimage to his tomb. Also at his tomb, a miracle now happened.
There a liquid started to gather, the so-called “Manna di S. Nicola” (“Manna of Saint Nicholas”). This liquid – eight liters each year – is said to have healing powers. Blind people should have been able to see again with the help of it.
In the year 1078, Italian merchands carried off the bones of St. Nicholas to Bari where they had been brought to Elias Church. Then the Nicholas Basilica in Bari was constructed between 1087 and 1196. Nowadays, around twohundredandthousand believers yearly are going on a pilgrimage that way.