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Basilica of Saint Nicholas

Largo Abate Elia, 12 - 6010 - 70122
weekdays 7.30-9.30; holidays 9.00-10.30-12.00-13.00 18.30-20.30 (holidays)
Owner Archbishop Ursone
Beginning of construction 8th of July 1087 beginning construction of crypt
Current use Church
The Basilica of St. Nicholas was built in the late 11th century to shelter and venerate the relics of St. Nicholas that reached Bari on May 9th, 1087 from the homonymous church in Myra, Lycia (modern-day Turkey). The classical Romanesque-style basilica is located within the ancient fortified citadel, once occupied by the Catapan Court. It is the main structure within the St. Nicholas Citadel which also encompasses a series of other buildings constructed over time:
- Church of San Gregorio, the oldest consecrated church in the city;
- Convent;
- Basilica library and archives that conserve paper and parchment documents of exceptional historical value;
- St. Nicholas Study Centre;
- Portico dei Pellegrini, or Pilgrims’ Portico (completely missing today because lost in 1950s restoration works) once located in the area where the Middle School “San Nicola” currently stands;
- St. Nicholas Museum, inaugurated on February 6th, 2010, that displays some of the most precious pieces from the Basilica Archive and Treasury.
For hundreds of years, solid fortified walls surrounded the St. Nicholas Citadel to safeguard the area. Three access gates interrupted the walls through Via Palazzo, the Angevin arch, and Via Vanese. The Basilica itself is surrounded by three squares that were interconnected during the restoration works carried out in the last century. These works significantly modified the layout of the premises. Prior to the construction of the seaside promenade in the 1930s, the sea lapped the east side of the complex. The main access to the front square was, therefore, through the ancient "Via Francigena", which today corresponds to the street called Strada Palazzo di Città. This road was once an ancient pilgrims’ route that guided pilgrims to the basilica in order to honour St. Nicholas, thus, becoming a meeting point between East and West.
Abbot Elias ordered the construction of the crypt that was destined to shelter the remains of the saint. Work began in 1087 and ended in 1089 with its consecration by Pope Urban II. The construction of the basilica, on the other hand, commenced with Elias’s successor, the abbot Eustace. It was consecrated on June 22nd, 1197.
Prior to the late 19th century, the edifice had undergone periodic modifications that had altered its original appearance, but not its integrity. At the beginning of the 20th century, however, the Ministry of Justice and of Religious Affairs inaugurated the "Grand Restorations" season (1925-1934) that restored the basilica to its current appearance.
The basilica is built of limestone, some of which had been re-purposed from other buildings. Two low massive towers frame the main façade: Torre del Catapano (The Catapan’s Tower) on the right, and Torre della Milizia (The Militia Tower) on the left; the latter is lower and shows different craftsmanship. The outer facade displays projecting pilasters and three access portals, and reflects the internal tripartite nave division. The central portal is the largest of the three and is richly carved with strong symbolic elements. It re-evokes the image of Christ’s victory over the gloom of paganism as can be seen through the archivolt decorations, the sculpture depicting a sphinx on the cusp of the protruding porch, and the oxen supporting the octagonal columns standing on either side of the portal.
The monofora and bifora windows (single and double light mullioned windows) positioned on multiple orders and the central oculus on the façade, as well as the deep blind six-arch loggias along the different-length sides of the building attenuate the austere Romanesque appearance. The beautiful portal of the Lions is found on the north side of the building.
The church interior has a Latin Tau-cross plan (i.e., T-shaped with the transept placed at the end of the nave), and is divided longitudinally into three naves by columns and pillars. A beautiful wooden ceiling covers the central nave, and frames richly ornate paintings by Carlo Rosa from Bitonto. The high altar is located at the end of the central nave, and is surmounted by the oldest ciborium in Apulia (12th century). The apse houses "Elias’s Cathedra", a marble bishop’s throne (late 11th - early 12th century). The mosaic-like decoration around the throne displays an Arabic Kufic script bearing the word "Allah", interpreted by some as evidence of the multi-ethnic craftsmanship employed in constructing the throne.
The late 16th-century tomb of Bona Sforza, Duchess of Bari and Queen of Poland, is positioned behind the bishop’s throne. The Queen’s remains were initially placed in the cathedral, but later entombed in the basilica. The tomb stands between two semi-nude female figures, representing Bari and Poland, and two images of the saints Nicholas and Stanislaus.
Other noteworthy works of art are:
- in the left apse: the altarpiece dating to the second half of the 15th century, attributed to Vivarini (Venetian painter working in Apulia), which portrays a sacred conversation between St. James and St. Ludwig, on the one hand, and St. Nicholas and St. Peter on the other; the Enthroned Virgin Mary with Child stands in the centre.
- in the right transept: the “Silver Altar” (1319-1684), donated in 1319 by the tsar of Serbia Uroš II Milutin to cover the Saint's tomb in the crypt. In 1684, the Basilica commissioned two Neapolitan artists, Domenico Marinelli and Ennio Avitabile, the rebuilding of the altar in the dominant Baroque style of the period.
- on the right apse altar: the triptych (1451) by the 15th-century painter Andrea Rico from Heraklion, very active in many Italian cities. Our Lady of the Passion is here depicted between St. Nicholas, on the right, and St. John the Evangelist, on the left. It was customary to depict the Mother Mary in consideration of the local devotional context of the city where Her image was portrayed (e.g. Bergamo, Florence, Parma, etc.)

Two wide staircases in the lateral aisles lead down to the crypt that shelters the saint’s relics. The presence of an Orthodox chapel in the crypt is noteworthy as it denotes the coexistence of two religions. Indeed, the crypt houses two altars; one dedicated to the Catholic rite, and the other to the Orthodox rite. This is a unique reality in the Catholic world that warrants the ecumenical vocation in the Bari territory. The basilica has continued to be an important pilgrimage destination throughout the centuries. Devotees come from all over the world, especially from the particularly devout Orthodox Russia, to venerate St. Nicholas. The crypt features a series of capitals, no two alike; some are called "double-faced". The "miraculous" porphyry column stands in the south corner.
Beginning of construction 8th of July 1087 beginning construction of crypt
End of construction 1197
Consecration 22nd of June 1197
Owner Archbishop Ursone
Previous buildings Palace of the Byzantine Catapan
In 968, Otranto relinquished its role as Byzantine capital of the Theme of Longobardia (968-1071) to Bari in virtue of the latter’s growing commercial importance. The administrative structure of Bari as a capital was born and developed between the 9th and 11th centuries within the Court of Catapan (Governor), and it included several bureaucracy buildings and churches. Thus, it became a "city within a city." The Basilica of Saint Nicholas was erected on the ruins of the ancient Catapan Court.
The area chosen for the construction of the basilica, therefore boasted civil origins as, only a few years earlier, it had been the palace of the Byzantine Catapan, later destroyed by the Normans. The Norman warlord Robert Guiscard was invested with the title of Duke of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily by Pope Nicholas II in 1059, and decided to donate the entire area to the Archbishop Ursone.
On May 9th, 1087, the relics of St. Nicholas arrived in the city of Bari thanks to sixty of its sailors who had stolen them from the church in Myra. Before relinquishing the saint’s relics, however, the sailors posed numerous conditions, one of which was to have a new basilica erected to shelter the relics. The Archbishop Ursone agreed, and assigned the Benedictine abbot Elias to proceed with the construction of a church that would shelter the saint’s remains, and also attract merchants and pilgrims from the East to the West. Thus, the Byzantine capital Bari became the city of Saint Nicholas. On the death of Ursone, Elias was unanimously voted as successor, and continued with the construction of the church. Construction of the crypt began on July 8th, 1087 and ended in September 1089. On October 1st, Pope Urban II placed the relics under the crypt altar, where they are still housed, and consecrated the Abbot Elias as archbishop of Bari with the pallium (ecclesiastical vestment). Abbot Elias died in 1105, and his remains are also kept in the basilica in an oriental sarcophagus displaying effigies of four philosophers.
Work on the main building progressed very slowly under the direction of Elias’s successor, the abbot Eustace. Indeed, in one of his papal 1106 bulls, Pope Paschal wrote that the church was almost finished, but that, unfortunately, infighting first, followed by the destruction of the city at the hands of William the Wicked in 1156, had greatly relented its completion.
On June 22nd, 1197, Conrad II, Bishop of Hildesheim and Imperial Chancellor of Henry VI, consecrated the basilica on behalf of Pope Celestine III before 5 archbishops, 28 bishops and 7 abbots.
The Angevin period marked the golden age of the basilica. Indeed, when King Charles II of Anjou died in 1309, he donated to the basilica three cities (Sannicandro in Bari, Rutigliano, and Grumo Appula), precious illuminated liturgical codes (eight of which viewable in the Basilica Archive), as well as countless gold and silver liturgical objects constituting the most valuable part of the St. Nicholas Treasury and Museum.
The people of Bari are deeply devoted to St. Nicholas. It is not uncommon to find in their homes bottles of varying sizes and materials (blown glass, ruby red crystal), decorated with scenes of the saint’s life or images of the saint portrayed in bishop robes, that contain a crystal-clear, sweet rose-smelling, sedimentless liquid.
This liquid is called the manna. It exudes from the bones of the saint, and is believed to have healing powers. The Manna of St. Nicholas is collected once a year directly from the urn containing the relics.
It is recounted that the sailors identified the tomb of St. Nicholas in Myra thanks to this very manna (called myron by the Greeks). The saint’s relics were found completely immersed in the liquid, and one of the sailors had to go down into the liquid to collect the remains. Stories narrate that the sailors were afraid of desecrating the burial place and the saint’s remains, but, then, when a vial containing the manna accidentally fell without breaking, they interpreted it as a good omen and felt encouraged to proceed in their intent.
The chronicles report numerous events related to the translation of the relics, such as that of the Archdeacon John, Nicephorus, and the Kiev legend. These episodes have inspired paintings, songs, and plays, all dedicated to the saint from Myra. The most emblematic and well-founded story is that of the three young maidens whose father, poor as he was, could not provide the necessary dowry for them to wed. One night, God appeared to Nicholas in a dream, and suggested that he donate part of his gold to the girls’ father. Hence, for three consecutive nights, Nicholas left a bag full of coins on the kitchen table where the father dined. With this money, therefore, the father was able to wed off all three daughters. Indeed, sacred iconography depicts the saint holding a gospel bible upon which three coin bags lie. To this day, unwed girls go down into the crypt of the Basilica of St. Nicholas and walk three times around a column that "miraculously" reached Bari via the sea.
Another well-known legend, dating back to the year 1000, recounts that three young boys were killed by an innkeeper and stored in a vat. Eventually, however, St. Nicholas brought them back to life. The story narrates that on his way to the Council of Nicaea, St. Nicholas decided to stop at an inn. He ordered a soup that instantaneously tasted like human flesh. So, St. Nicholas summoned the innkeeper and demanded to see where the meat he had been served was preserved. The innkeeper showed Nicholas the vat containing the limbs of the three children he had killed. St. Nicholas began praying, and not long afterward, the three children resuscitated and their body parts recomposed. The prayers also led the innkeeper to convert to Christianity.
Paintings by the artist Carlo Rosa from Bitonto portraying some of these and other stories are framed on the ceiling of the basilica. To commemorate the 900-year anniversary of the translation of the saint’s relics, a bronze triptych was commissioned. It is located in the left aisle of the church and depicts the three maidens and Adeodatus, as well as two events related to the arrival of the relics in Bari; the passage of the first crusade Knights through Bari before Urban II, and the Council St. Anselm attended. The artwork is by the sculptor Annamaria Di Terlizzi from Bari; the only woman to have worked for the basilica.
It is also well-known that on the eve of December 6th, St. Nicholas’s feast day, children throughout all of Europe receive gifts, toys, sweets, and prayer cards with the saint’s image, in St. Nicholas’s name. The children hope and wait anxiously to catch a glimpse of the saint of all peoples with his donkey and little black servant.

How do I reach downtown?
airport Airport  

From Viale Enzo Ferrari continue in the direction of Strada Provinciale 204 / Viale Gabriele d'Annunzio / SP204.
Take Viale Europa, SS16, Via Napoli and Corso Vittorio Veneto in the direction of Via Venice to Bari.
Follow Via Venezia and Largo Papa Urbano II to Piazza S. Nicola.

motorway Toll road  

From the toll booth at Bari Sud of the Autostrada A14,
Take E843, Viale Giuseppe Tatarella, the underpass Sottopassaggio Giuseppe Filippo, Via Brigata Regina.
Continue on Corso Antonio de Tullio in the direction of Via Venezia to Bari.
Follow Via Venezia and Largo Papa Urbano II to Piazza S. Nicola.

other Public Transport  

AMTAB A bus lines (rest area in Piazza Massari) #2, #10, #12/, and #35 stop near Largo Abate Elia.

park Parking lots  

Lungomare Imperatore Augusto-Area Parcheggio Museo Archeologico

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