Founded in 1089 to shelter the stolen relics of St. Nicolas of Myra, the Basilica di San Nicola (St. Nicholas Basilica) in Bari is a majestic edifice that became the model for later Puglian Romanesque churches. Its crypt still contains the relics of St. Nicholas, a.k.a. Santa Claus.
History of the Basilica di San Nicola
Saint Nicholas was born in Patara around 300 AD, became bishop of Myra (in present-day Turkey), and died there around 350. He is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, travellers and children; many of his legends involve helping young people and the poor. In recent centuries, his legend has expanded to the bearded Christmastime figure of Santa Claus, who brings gifts to children.
In 1087, 47 sailors stole the relics of St. Nicholas from his original grave in Myra. After the arrival of the prize in Bari, construction began on a suitable church to house the holy remains. Work on the basilica began in 1089 and was completed around 1105, but it was not consecrated until 1197.
Bari became an important religious center in the Middle Ages. In 1098, the city hosted the Council of Bari, in which St. Anselm of Canterbury argued for the western doctrine of the "procession of the Holy Ghost" (an interpretation of the Trinity) against the opposing Greek view.
The city rebelled against the Normans in 1156, and suffered the razing of virtually the entire city as a result - only the Basilica of St. Nicholas was spared.
What to See at the Basilica di San Nicola
The Basilica di San Nicola overlooks a square in the heart of the Old Town, not far from the sea. The west facade is large, imposing, and relatively austere. It is flanked by two heavy square towers that were never finished. The facade is divided into three vertical sections, corresponding to the nave and side aisles of the interior.
The facade's steep rooflines are decorated with blind arcading (Lombard bands) and the flat surface is pierced by a small oculus and eight round-headed windows. The central portal is decorated with rich carvings that show Arabian, Byzantine and Classical influences.
Along the north and south sides, deep arcades link the west towers to the transepts, giving the basilica a squarish appearance. The third arch on the north side houses the Porta dei Leoni (Lion Portal), decorated with sculpture signed by Basilio. Lions support the columns flanking the door, two personifications of the months can be seen on the impost blocks, and below the arch are chivalric scenes. The south side also has a fine doorway.
Inside, the nave consists of tall arches supported on marble columns with carved Romanesque capitals. There is a triforium gallery and a small clerestory. The slightly intrusive transverse arches that span the nave date from 1451.
A screen composed of three small arches separates the nave from the choir. The Romanesque capitals here are especially fine. The rounded apse contains the splendid marble bishop's throne, which was probably made for the council of 1098, and the monument of Bona Sforza, Queen of Poland and Duchess of Bari (1593).
Stairways in the side aisles lead down to the crypt, where the relics of St. Nicholas can be visited. The altar centers on a Byzantine icon given by the King of Serbia in 1319, surrounded by silver and gold reliefs of 1684 by Domenico Marinelli and Antonio Avitabili. The crypt is supported on 28 columns with carved capitals.
Quick Facts on the Basilica di San Nicola
|Names:||Basilica di San Nicola|
|Dedication:||St. Nicholas of Myra|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||41.130304° N, 16.870124° E|
|Address:||Largo Abate Elia 13|
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Basilica di San Nicola|
- Paul Blanchard, Blue Guide Southern Italy, 11th ed. (London: Blue Guides Limited, 2007), 456-57.
- Basilica San Nicola Bari - official website
- Basilica di San Nicola - Wikipedia
- Bari - San Nicola - Planetware
- St. Nicholas of Myra - Catholic Encyclopedia
- Review of the Basilica di San Nicola (September 28, 2009) - TripAdvisor
- Photos of the Basilica di San Nicola - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of the Basilica di San Nicola, Bari
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Basilica di San Nicola. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.