About Church of Saint Nicholas, Myra
The Church of Saint Nicholas at Myra – also called St Nicholas Museum – is an ancient Byzantine church which charts the life of this famous Christian Saint and is one of the oldest surviving churches in existence.
Saint Nicholas was born in Patara in the 3rd Century AD, and is said to have been raised in a wealthy Christian family. He became Bishop of Myra at a young age, and this position was his initial source of fame. He was imprisoned by the Emperor Diocletian, who persecuted the Christian faith, and attended the famed council of Nicaea, a gathering of the notables of Christendom, after his release.
It is Nicholas’ life and deeds which spawned the myth of Santa Claus and accounts for the way in which he is venerated in the Christian world. Nicholas was particularly well known for the accounts of his acts of kindness towards children. One narrative recalls three daughters, whose father was too poor to be able to afford a dowry. Ordinarily this would have resulted in the daughters being sold into slavery. However, three bags of gold appeared in stockings in mysterious circumstances, thus sparing the daughters their fate. In some northern European countries, St. Nicholas day is celebrated by children leaving shoes or stockings out overnight, to find gifts in the morning.
As well as being patron saint of children, Nicholas was also the patron of sailors, a result of Myra being an important port. Ironically, given that he was associated with kind deeds, he also became the patron of pirates, after they stole his relics. Nicholas died in circa 345AD, and stories of his good deeds and acts of kindness spread rapidly. His church became a popular place of pilgrimage, and the beatification of Nicholas occurred soon after his death. He was the Eastern world’s most famous saint, and was also adopted by the rest of Europe, being imagined by northern Europeans as wearing a cape and furs and riding a sleigh, despite residing in a Mediterranean climate during his lifetime.
Though there may have been a church constructed on the present site shortly after the death of St. Nicholas, the church which exists now has its roots in the 9th century. It has undergone two separate major renovations. Constantine IX rebuilt the church in 1043, and Tsar Nicholas I had the church renovated in 1862. Some restoration work has also been carried out more recently by Turkish archaeologists.
Despite its relatively modest size the Church of Saint Nicholas is nonetheless spectacular, and is popular with pilgrims and tourists alike. Particular highlights are the magnificent vaulted rooms, and the small gallery nearby containing the remains of some wonderful mosaics and frescoes.
There are a number of sarcophagi contained within the church, firstly in a gallery adjacent to the first chapel. The most notable sarcophagus is located in a separate, narrow gallery, which is said to be that of St. Nicholas himself, although his remains are more likely to have been stolen – apparently by Italian sailors who whisked them away to Bari where they built the Basilica of Saint Nicholas. There are further mosaics in the main apse, which also contains the altar of the church and some white marble steps.
The church is open to visitors all year round, with reduced opening hours during the winter months.
Contributed by Chris Reid