In the south of Italy, on the Adriatic coast, lies the city of Bari. There, near the sea and right next to the cathedral stands a bronze cast statue: it is a statue of Saint Nicholas. The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, gave it – he says on behalf of the Russian people – on April 16, 2003 to the people of Bari. “Let this gift be a testament to our honour to this saint and to the unwavering desire of our peoples to live in peace with one another.”
The last time I visited Bari I arrived by ferry from Patras in Greece. It was in the last week of a month-long trip through the Southeast of Europe. It was the early morning of the 8th of May 2017. The route my boat sailed would have been about the same as the last part of the route by which the holy body of Nicholas reached Bari in 1087 also on the 8th of May. Sailors from Bari had stolen these remains from the church in Myra in broad daylight. Although this is almost 1000 years ago the arrival of these holy remains in Bari is celebrated each year. Each year on that particular day Nicolas dead body is taken out of his grave. They say that even after all these centuries there still is this holy fluid – the Santa Manna – leaking from the corpse. This holy fluid is drained, diluted, mixed with water and put in tiny bottles. These bottles are then put for sale because that fluid is supposed to have a healing effect.
Bari was swarming with Russians the day I arrived there. There was not one hotel room left that day. This is why I decided to move on. Nikolas – at that moment – did not have any importance for me. Little did I know.
October 2021, for the time being the last time I visited Russia. There was a conference on green spaces in the Peter and Paul fortress in Saint Petersburg. Covid19 was still there and the city hosted only a few foreign visitors. I felt happy to be there, I met some friends, everything was calm and relaxed. With my negative PCR test I could go to the museums. I chose the Russia museum. The big windows and all the light you get inside combined with the artworks they display makes it one of my favourites. Among the many artworks in the museum, I saw a painting of Saint Nicolas.
Nicolas is the patron saint of Russia. In every Orthodox house in Russia it is said, in the past as well as today, there are three icons present: the Savior, of the Mother of God, and of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. Nicolas is so important that for a long time it was forbidden to name a child after him. He is seen as a Russian saint, although he has never been there. According to the Orthodox church it was Nicholas who has saved Russia many times from catastrophe.
In Italy Nikolas is celebrated twice each year. The 6th of December as the day he died and the 9th of May as the day he arrived in Bari. On both days there is a procession in which a wooden statue of Saint Nicholas – specially approved by the Pope – is carried through the city. In May they also take a tour at sea with that image. The saint who is carried around in Bari does not resemble the Saint Nicholas as many people in the world know him at all. In Bari as well as in Russia the saint has a dark Turkish appearance: Saint Nicholas is black.
Nicholas lived and worked in the area of Myra in the third century. Today that is Turkey but during his lifetime it was part of the Roman Empire. Nicholas became a bishop at a very young age. That happened shortly after both his parents died in a pandemic.
Nicholas is said to have visited the Holy Land to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. The story goes that on the way back a storm broke out and when Nicholas went to pray the sea immediately calmed down. Thus, he became the protector of the sailors. For many other reasons, he also became the protector of merchants, of regretful thieves, of brewers and, apparently, also of the students. The main reason though why almost everyone in the world knows Santa Claus, Sinterklaas or Nicolás is because he is the protector of children. He even gives them presents! The day of his death (and interesting enough not his birthday), December 6, 343, is celebrated in many countries.
After his death, he was canonized and a church was built over his grave. It was found out during these years that the dead body of Nicholas is producing the Santa Manna. That is why Myra became a place of pilgrimage where believers always tried to get some drops of the holy liquid. The remains of his body lay safe there for 700 years in the crypt under the cathedral that was built for him.
But then on July 16, 1054, the great schism in the Christian Church took place: the Patriarch of Constantinople was expelled from the Roman Catholic Church. The patriarch no longer accepted the leadership of the Pope. From that day on, these two big churches continued separately as the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Catholic Church. It was unpalatable to the Roman Pope that he would never be able to see his most important saint again. And then a plan was made.
Thus it was that in 1087 the coffin containing the sacred bones of Saint Nicholas was stolen from the crypt in Myra by sailors from Bari. Merchants from Venice who were also on their way at the time were trumped and bought off. They got a small part of the dead body. A part that can be found today in the Church of St. Nicholas at the Venice Lido. The rest of the remains went to Bari. And that is where they are until today.
When my ferry from Patras approached the port of Bari I could easily see the Nicholas Cathedral. After all, a church that has to protect the seamen is always near the water’s edge.
In the Netherlands, we know Nicolas as a white old man with a miter. We celebrate his birthday on December 6, a bit strange because it is the anniversary of his death. Nicholas lived in Myra and we can of course be certain he has never been white. The Russians painted him dark. The statue that is carried around in Bari alos has him with dark skin. But from Western Europe, the Nikolas with the white beard and the miter went to the US where they made him Santa Claus. Even in sweltering Mexico, a bishop-like man with white hair and a white cap hands out presents in every city during the weeks before Christmas. Nicholas is certainly the most famous but also the most flexible saint in the world.
Only in 1965 the excommunication decrees pronounced in 1054 between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics were lifted. A year later, an Orthodox chapel could be built opposite the crypt in the church in Bari so that the Orthodox could also pray with their patron saint. Then in 2003 Putin gave Bari the bronze statue. It would not be until 2016 before both Church leaders would meet again. At the initiative of Pope Francis, he met with Patriarch Kirill at the airport of Havana in Cuba. The first time after 1000 years.
What was it they arranged? Pope Francis gave permission that a part of the body of Saint Nicholas could travel to Russia. The Russians had a golden sarcophagus specially made in which that part of the sacred body could be transported and displayed. The first three weeks in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. The next two weeks in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg. The filling of that sarcophagus happened exactly the day I was in Bari. Later I read in a newspaper that – according to anonymous sources – it was the bishop’s ninth rib. A very important rib of course because of its location close to the heart.
The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest church in Russia. That church has its own leader, now Patriarch Kirill. Because the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate rejects the authority of Rome, the Patriarch is the highest authority of all Russian Orthodox believers. This has not always been the case. When Peter the Great devised a new constitution in 1721, he proclaimed himself emperor of the ‘Russian Empire’ and ended the autonomy of the Russian Orthodox Church. Peter knew from his own experience that the patriarchs sometimes turned against the tsars. He therefore devised a new interpretation: every secular authority comes from God and so the church resides under the authority of the head of state, which was him, Peter the Great. It stayed like that for almost 200 years.
After the communist takeover in 1917, a separation was again made between church and state. The Russian Orthodox Church from then on could again choose its own patriarch, but in reality the church was banned by the communist regime. Churches all over Russia were demolished or used for other purposes. The Orthodox Nicholas Cathedral in Kiev, as an example, was blown up in 1934. Then in 1941 – but only after the German armies had invaded Russia – a rapprochement arose again: Stalin asked the Orthodox church to support him in the war against Germany.
And then it was June 1, 2017. Three weeks after my visit to Bari, this time I am back in Moscow. I’m having lunch with Katya. She works for Strelka, the architecture center of Moscow. The Strelka building is located on the island in the Moscow River opposite the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. They also have a cafe and a restaurant. From the roof terrace you have a beautiful view of the huge golden domes of the cathedral. Although the weather is weird, we eat outside. Sometimes there are gusts of wind, but regularly the sun also appears. We have lunch but we are the only ones sitting here.
On every normal day the road on the other side of the river is filled with cars. But today there is a huge queue of people going in the direction of the cathedral. Since a few days – from 21 May 2017 to be exact – a part of the sacred body of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of Russia, the one who died 1700 years ago, is there. That sacred part of Nicolas body comes from Bari.
The line can be seen very well from here. We eat under a small shelter, there are even blankets laid out for us if we should feel cold. It all looks very organised. I read some days later in the Moscow Times that the peoples queue must have been more than two kilometers long, a miracle in itself. According to the newspaper, there were gypsies, atheists, selfie makers and beer drinkers in line. But for the most part they were all true Orthodox believers, many of whom were older women with headscarves from villages far away from this city.
The row is divided into sections. Every fifteen minutes, people in one section are allowed to pass through to the next. There are also tour buses along the side. If you can’t stand standing, you can sit there for a while. “We’d better stand,” someone said. “That’s the least you can do: stand, pray, suffer.” On the other side of the street are the sales stalls and also the mobile toilets. When the queue arrives at Saint Nicholas, you may make a wish. There is much debate about what to wish for. Once they arrive at the golden sarcophagus, everybody is urged to walk quickly. After all, there is still a line of more than two kilometers of people waiting outside.
Then while we wre eating lunch up there suddenly a thunderstorm breaks out. We see all these people running away and looking for a dry shelter. It flashes and it thunders and it suddenly rains super hard. Half an hour later it is again dry, the sun breaks through and everyone returns to their place in line. The next morning I read that the line was longer than the line to visit Lenin’s mausoleum has ever been.
President Putin was the first to kiss the sacred bones of Saint Nicholas along with Patriarch Kirill. The Russian Orthodox still abide to the old Julian calander. That is why in Moscow they celebrate Nicolas arrival in Bari on the 22nd of May and not on the 9th. Maybe it is a good idea when Pope Francis will bring some bones of Saint Nicholas to Kiev that day this year. To save Russia from another catastrophe. The war can be over one day later.