St Nicholas was born sometime between 265 to 280 into a wealthy Christian family in Patara, a little village near the city of Myra (now called Demre) where the Roman god Diana was worshipped. Nicholas’ parents were probably merchants who traded with the many ships that visited the port of Myra. St Paul had passed through Myra 200 years before as a prisoner on his way to Rome and most likely preached there. In any case, a church was established during the apostolic age, and was still going strong when Nicholas was born.
Nicholas, an only child, grew up knowing and loving the Lord, familiar with the Gospel and the Scriptures, singing the Psalms in church and worshipping at the Eucharist which at that stage would still be celebrated in a large house. Occasionally the church would meet at the local cemetery as a way of celebrating the resurrection.
Being a Christian back then was extremely dangerous. A few years before Nicholas was born, some church members in Myra were killed by the Roman authorities for refusing to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. Nicholas would have grown up being aware of this ever-present risk, but along with the rest of the church he would have considered persecution to be an opportunity to “participate in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 4:13).
In the Greek language “Nicholas” means “victory for the people.” It is said that even from childhood he behaved like a saint, especially in avoiding the usual temptations available to the affluent in Roman society - money, sex, and politicking for power. The Lord’s hand was clearly on his life. He never strayed, and from the earliest age was noted for his holiness and the Christlike compassion with which he treated others.
Nicholas’ parents died in an outbreak of plague when he was still in his teens. He was alone, though not without resources, because of his large inheritance. But, rather than squander it, or develop a lavish lifestyle, he prayed that the Lord would show him how he should dispose of his life and his assets.
In Roman society at the time, it was usual for people to look after their own families, but not to care very much about anyone else. Historians tell us that the early Christians shocked their contemporaries by caring indiscriminately for the needy, whoever they were, including those rejected by society, such as prisoners, widows, and orphans. Nicholas took the call of Jesus to care for the poor seriously, which resulted in the first and most talked about deed of his life.
In Patara there was man who had once been wealthy, but had lost everything. He had three daughters, but there was no prospect of them ever getting married because the father couldn’t afford a dowry. Selling his daughters into slavery (which at the time often meant sex slavery) - a common practice under these circumstances in the Roman world - was the only option left.
Nicholas heard about this family’s problems. So, one night, he took some of the gold left to him by his parents, tied it up in a small sack, and threw it into the open window of the poor man’s house. (Some versions of the story say that he threw the sack down the chimney and the gold landed in the girls’ stockings, which had been hung up by the fire to dry. But this is likely to be a later embelishment!)
In the morning the father got up out of bed and found a pile of money in the middle of the house. He wept, giving thanks to God. He then realised that the amount corresponded exactly with what was needed for a dowry. So he decorated the bridal chamber of his oldest daughter. Peace of mind returned to the family.
When Nicholas saw the effect his gift had on the family, he decided to do the same for the other two daughters. The third time, the father of the girls was hiding in the dark to see who the generous giver was. This time, when the bag of gold hit the floor, the father ran outside and found Nicholas, thanking him for saving him and his family from a life of ruin and shame.
This kind of giving was unique. In those days, in a culture of patronage, anonymous giving was unheard of. If a wealthy benefactor helped someone, the receiver would be obligated for life. So Nicholas’ generosity had a huge impact on the Christian communities who first heard the story. To this day it is the main thing for which Nicholas is remembered, and the reason why he is one of the most popular saints in the church’s history.
But there is more. When Nicholas was a young man a cruel well-organised persecution of Christians took place under the Roman emperor Diocletian, who needed a scapegoat to blame for the Empire’s economic recession. Nicholas seems to have been studying for the priesthood at the time when the Bishop of Myra was killed. One night in 295 AD, the senior bishops from around that area met to pray through the night, asking God to show them who to consecrate as the next bishop of Myra. One bishop there had a vision, in which God told him to take the others to the place where the church met and wait there for the first man to walk through the door in the morning. “His name will be Nicholas.”
Nicholas was indeed the first to enter the house that morning. And he became one of the youngest bishops ever in the church, a man of the people and a man of God, who ministered according to the example of loving humility seen in Jesus.
Not long after Nicholas’ consecration, he was arrested on religious charges, imprisoned without trial, beaten and tortured. It was common for the authorities to blind the right eye of a Christian prisoner and cut the sinews of his left ankle. Nicholas bore the scars of his torture for Jesus, even though he was not called to martyrdom. But for most of the time he was Bishop of Myra, Christians were a hated minority, abused by violent mobs and persecuted at the whim of the emperor.
Under the emperor Constantine, Christianity went almost overnight from being a persecuted minority to the most inflential religion of the empire. The Edict of Milan (312 AD) removed restrictions on Christians. In 325 Constantine called together the Council of Nicaea, three hundred or bishops who gathered for discussion and debate. Many of them were old, missing eyes and limping, some even missing limbs because of the persecution they had been through. They debated vigorously. The most important result of that Council was to affirm what St John’s Gospel says about Jesus, that he, the Word, was with God and was God – that the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us was actually God in the flesh, the same substance as God.
There are so many stories of Nicholas’ ministry involving deeds of loving compassion by which he lightened the people’s burdens. His fame spread far and wide, and it is clear that some of the stories are legendary. But the impact of his life and ministry was so great that many churhes in East and west were very early dedicated under his patronage.
Nicholas died in the 330s, and his tomb in Myra became a place of pilgrimage whose popularity grew over the centuries. By the 11th century, however, the church in Turkey was under attack by Muslim armies, and many thought that access to the tomb might become difficult or even impossible. From the religious point of view, as well as – admittedly – the commercial rewards of operating a major pilgrimage centre, the Italian cities of Venice and Bari both wanted St Nicholas’ relics.
In spring 1087, capitalising on this rivalry, sailors from Bari in Apulia took some of St Nicholas’ remains from Myra. To this day at St Nicholas’ shrine in Bari, there are two churches, one Roman Catholic and one Orthodox.
Bit the sailors from Bari collected just half of St Nicholas’ skeleton, leaving all the minor fragments in the grave. These were collected by Venetian sailors during the first crusade, in the closing years of the 11th century, and taken to Venice, where a church to St Nicholas was built. This was actually confirmed in two 20th century scientific investigations of the relics in Bari and Venice, which revealed that the relics in the two cities belong to the same skeleton.
WHAT DID St NICHOLAS REALLY LOOK LIKE?
Modern forensic science is able to identify crime victims from their skeletal remains. But when we have the right information (normally, skeletal remains, including the skull) these techniques can be used also to show us what figures of hisory looked like.
The following is taken from the website of The St Nicholas Centre.
These bones were temporarily removed when the crypt was repaired during the 1950s. At the Vatican’s request, anatomy professor Luigi Martino from the University of Bari, took thousands of minutely-detailed measurements and x-ray photographs (roentgenography) of the skull and other bones.
The current professor of forensic pathology at the University of Bari, Francesco Introna, knew advancements in diagnostic technique could yield much more from the data gathered in the 1950s. So he engaged an expert facial anthropologist, Caroline Wilkinson, at the University of Manchester in England, to construct a model of the saint’s head from the earlier measurements.
Using this data, the medical artist used state-of-the-art computer software to develop the model of St Nicholas. The virtual clay was sculpted on screen using a special tool that allows one to “feel” the clay as it is molded. Dr Wilkinson says, “In theory you could do the same thing with real clay, but it’s much easier, far less time-consuming and more reliable to do it on a computer.”
After inferring the size and shape of facial muscles—there are around twenty-six—from the skull data, the muscles are pinned onto the virtual skull, stretched into position, and covered with a layer of “skin.” “The muscles connect in the same place on everyone, but because skulls vary in shape, a different face develops,” Wilkinson comments. The tangents from different parts of the nasal cavity determine the length of a nose. This was difficult because St Nicholas’ nose had been badly broken. “It must have been a very hefty blow because it’s the nasal bones between the eyes that are broken,” she continued.
“We used clay on the screen that you can feel but not physically touch. It was very exciting. We did not have the physical skull, so we had to recreate it from two-dimensional data. We are bound to have lost some of the level of detail you would get by working from photographs, but we believe this is the closest we are ever going to get to him,” Wilkinson concluded.
Next the three-dimensional image went to Image Foundry Studios where a digital artist added detail and color to the model. This gave it Greek Mediterranean olive-toned skin, brown eyes, and grey hair and beard, trimmed in 4th century fashion.
The result of the project is the image of a Greek man, living in Asia Minor (part of the Greek Byzantine Empire), about 60-years old, 5-feet 6-inches tall, who had a heavy jaw and a broken nose.
The following images are from the IMAGE FOUNDRY website in the U.K.