Strip away the images of the red suit, reindeer and presents and you’ll start to get a better sense of St. Nicholas, the fourth-century priest who inspired the Santa Claus we know today.
Although be warned, a deeper look into the history of the holy man with the legendary generosity adds a touch of the macabre to the magic of Christmas.
More than 1,600 years after his death, there is still a dispute about where his remains may be. Pieces of his skeleton are said to be scattered around the world, including Canada.
The Italian city of Bari lays claim to St. Nicholas’s body, insisting his remains were stolen from his tomb by traders travelling through the region and whisked away to Italy. But in October, researchers in Turkey said georadar imaging suggested there’s a chance he may still be buried in the church where he served.
What we know for certain is that before he was bestowed sainthood, Nicholas preached and prayed in what is now known as Demre, Turkey (Myra in the Byzantine Empire). St. Nicholas Church, although battered by time, is still standing and seen as one of Orthodox Christianity’s holiest sites.
The Byzantine frescoes inside are fading but still offer a vivid look at what made St. Nicholas famous: helping children and the ill. (He was also the patron saint of sailors.)
Apart from helping children, the ill and families who couldn’t have children, Saint Nicholas was also known for helping sailors. (CBC)
The artifacts contained in the museum draw visitors from around the world. Some, like Harry Cameron and Gajan Yogeswaran, visiting from New Zealand, are history buffs. “It’s quite remarkable to take the very commercialized image and take it back to a real saint that actually lived 1,600 years ago,” Cameron said.
Visitors to the church come from around the world, including Gajan Yogeswaran, left, and Harry Cameron, right, who hailed from New Zealand. (Nil Köksal/CBC)
The church is a moving pilgrimage for visitors from Eastern Europe. Most of the people in this group from Ukraine have visited Demre multiple times and say, while they’ll also visit Bari, the location of his remains doesn’t matter.
Many in this group of Orthodox Christians from Ukraine has visited the St. Nicholas Church multiple times. This time, they brought their priest for a candlelit service. (Nil Köksal/CBC News)
Turkish professor and art historian Sema Dogan is leading the research and says any concrete claims that they or Bari have the saint’s remains are, at this point, “debatable.” Tourists visiting the church in Demre are told their beloved saint may have been buried inside this casket because it was the most ornate. But that, Dogan insists, could be misleading. Nicholas wasn’t canonized until after his death. He may have been buried in a simple grave or in a crypt hidden underneath the church.
This fresco depicts Saint Nicholas tending to the ill. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)
What may be underneath the church is now making headlines and rankling the Italians, who have their own basilica and museum honouring Nicholas. There are tourism dollars at stake. Scans taken this fall revealed what researchers believe is a structure beneath the altar, and Turkish reports hinted strongly that the discovery was a clear sign his bones were in Turkey.
Dogan says they’ve found two foundations, one a metre tall, the other nearly three metres. Churches were often built atop pagan shrines, but the structures could also contain a crypt, which Dogan says would be definitive proof about the saint’s remains. She and her team of roughly 30 archaeologists and researchers hope to dig at the site this summer.
Visiting the church is a deeply spiritual experience for Orthodox Christians. They often kneel in front of the ornate casket that may have housed Saint Nicholas’s remains before they were stolen and kiss the glass that encloses it. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)
Despite the simmering controversy, Dogan says it is religion and history that will guide her project. “We’re trying to shed light on the history of the structure,” she said.
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