Nicholas was born in Patara around 300, became bishop of Myra, and died around 350. Only these basic details are known to history, but legends abound concerning the life of the saint. A much-embellished hagiography (life of the saint) was written by Simon Metaphrastes in the 10th century.
St. Nicholas is said to have been born of wealthy parents and to have traveled to the Holy Land in his youth. He was tortured and imprisoned during the persecutions of Diocletian, and released when Constantine ordered official toleration of Christians. Nicholas is said to have attended the famous Council of Nicea in 325 (although his name does not appear in the official lists), where he became so infuriated by the heretic Arius that he slapped him hard in the face!
Many of the legends of St. Nicholas involve him helping young people and the poor. In one tale, a butcher lured three boys to his house during a time of famine. While they slept, he killed them, cut them up and placed the pieces in a barrel of salt, intending to sell them for food. Nicholas, who was told of this horrendous act by an angel, hurried to the butcher’s house and restored the boys to life.
Another popular legend has it that three daughters of a poor merchant were about to be forced into prostitution since they had no marriage dowries, but St. Nicholas saved them from a life of sin by dropping three bags of gold into the merchant’s garden or chimney (versions vary), enabling them to get married.
The saint was buried in Myra upon his death, and a church may have been built over his tomb soon after. If so, it would have been badly damaged in the earthquake of 529 and repaired along with Myra’s other buildings later in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian. Damaged in the Arab raids of the 7th century, the Church of St. Nicholas of Myra was rebuilt in the 8th century; it is this structure that largely survives today.
After his death, Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors and seafarers, and many pilgrims came to visit his tomb. Over the centuries, the legends and great popularity of St. Nicholas of Myra led to the Christmastime figure of the bearded man who secretly brings toys to children. He is still known as St. Nick in most of Europe (and he brings his gifts on December 6, not Christmas), but in America he came to be known as Santa Claus.
The church suffered another Arab attack in 1034 and was restored in 1043 by Emperor Constantine IX, at which time a walled monastery was added nearby. In 1087, a group of Italian merchants pushed past the monks and broke open the saint’s sarcophagus. They stole the relics and took them to Bari, Italy, where they were placed in a shrine in the cathedral.
By the middle of the 19th century, the Church of St. Nicholas was in very poor condition. Two attempts by Russian groups to restore it were only partly successful. The bell tower and upper storey were probably added at this time.
What to See
The floor of the church is several meters below street level, and is accessed by a steeply descending ramp. There are fine marble mosaic pavements (opus sectile) and faded wall paintings throughout the church.
The church has three side aisles; the two on the south have chapels at the east end. A room beyond the north aisle provides access to the upper storey.
The nave is covered by a groined vault and has a synthronon (set of stepped seats for the clergy) with a covered passage in the apse. The stone altar is surrounded by four broken pillars and the exonarthex and narthex are well-preserved.
The empty tomb of St. Nicholas is in the south aisle between two pillars and behind a broken marble screen. A reused Greek-era sarcophagus, the lid features effigies of a man and a woman. The cloisters on the north side of the church are in a good state of repair.