After Saint Nicholas’ bones were looted from his tomb in Turkey about 700 years after he died, cities in Italy and Ireland claimed to have stolen the bones. For centuries there was debate about which city is home to the grave of beloved Old Saint Nick. While the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy was widely accepted to be home to the relics of Saint Nicholas, there were two other cities that alleged to possess the grave of St. Nicholas: Venice, Italy and Newtown Jerpoint, Ireland.
Saint Nicholas was born around 270 AD to a wealthy family in the village of Patara in modern Turkey. He became well-known for his charitable nature because he gave away his fortune to help the sick and the poor. Nicholas was so famous for his kindness that he eventually became the basis for the Santa Claus legend. He was eventually elected Bishop of Myra, a Roman city in modern day Turkey, despite not being a priest at the time, possibly because his uncle previously held the position.
Nicholas died in 343 AD and his remains were eventually interred at St. Nicholas Church in Myra. After his death, Nicholas was recognized as a saint locally before the Roman Catholic Church had a formalized canonization process. Nicholas’ tomb became a popular pilgrimage site that produced a lot of money for the local economy, especially when monks discovered water in the tomb that could be harvested and sold. The monks believed that Nicholas’ bones produced this liquid, which they called manna, and claimed that it had healing powers.
In 1087, sailors from Bari, Italy traveled to Myra and visited the tomb of St. Nicholas with an ulterior motive-steal the relics and bring them back to Italy. Some believe the Christian sailors stole the skeletal remains to save them from the invading Muslim Seljuk Turks, while others think they were stolen to bring money from the lucrative pilgrimage industry to Bari.
When the bones arrived in Bari in May of 1087, the townspeople vowed to build a basilica to house the relics. Saint Nicholas’ crypt was completed in 1089 and Pope Urban II translated the relics and consecrated the shrine at the Basilica di San Nicola.
The bones continued to secrete the famous manna in the new tomb in Bari. Since 1980, the liquid isharvested from the bottom of the tomb on May 9th, the Feast of the Translation of S. Nicholas from Myra to Bari.
In 1957, Luigi Martino, an anatomy professor at the University of Bari, led a team that carefully examined and documented St. Nicholas’ bones in Bari. The skull was in pretty good condition but the rest of the bones were fragmented and fragile. Martino found that these remains belonged to an elderly manbetween 72 and 80 years old, which fit Nicholas’ age at death of about 75 years old.
But for centuries Venetians claimed that the church of San Nicolò al Lido also possessed the bones of St. Nicholas. They believed that when troops sailed from Venice to fight in the First Crusade in 1099 they stopped off in Myra. During this visit, these sailors visited St. Nicholas Church and robbed the saint’s tomb and stole an urn with an inscription, “Here lies the Great Bishop Nicholas, Glorious on Land and Sea.”
For centuries Bari and Venice had a heated dispute over who really had Nicholas’ bones. So Luigi Martino, the anatomist who examined the bones in Bari in 1957, was allowed to look at the Venetian bones in 1992 to settle the debate. He discovered that the Venetian bones were broken into “as many as 500” pieces that were brittle and delicate. The bone fragments in Venice were in the same poor condition as the bones in Bari.
Martino found that the skeletal remains in Bari and Venice are likely from the same man because the pieces of bone stored at San Nicoló al Lido were fragments of body parts missing from the body interred at Bari. It’s thought that the Venetian sailors stole the fragmented bones left behind after the Barian theft in 1087. The Venetian bones, however, reportedly don’t secrete manna.
But Irish historians allege that the body of Saint Nicholas is really buried in an abandoned medieval town in Ireland. Central to the Irish claims to St. Nicholas’ grave are the de Frainets, a French family who participated in the Crusades. In one tale, two knights named Den and de Frainet robbed the Nicholas’ relics from the Basilica in Bari on their way home from the Crusades and brought them to Ireland.
In another story, the de Frainets helped to steal Saint Nicholas’ relics from Myra and brought them to Bari, a time when the town was under the control of French Normans. When the Normans were pushed out of Bari, the de Frainets moved to Nice, France and took Saint Nicholas’ remains with them. The relics remained in France until the Normans lost power in the area.
Nicholas de Frainet brought the bones to Newtown Jerpoint, a medieval town where his family owned land. Nicholas de Frainet built a Cistercian Abbey at Jerpoint where St Nicholas’s remains were buried in 1200. Although Newtown Jerpoint is deserted, the abbey is stands.
While this theory seems to be a tactic to draw pilgrims to the area, there is a bit of credibility to the Irish claim. At Jerpoint Abbey there is a grave slab that seems to depict the body of St. Nicholas and carvings of the heads of two Knights, Den and de Frainet, who stole the relics from Bari.
The Turkish government seems to believe the Italian claims to possess the elderly bishop’s bones. Since 2009, the Turkish Ministry of Culture has repeatedly petitioned the Italian government and the Vatican for the return of Saint Nicholas’ bones because they were illegally obtained.
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