12/11/12 - santa claus had a broken nose

In today's selection -- in 1953, the bones of the real Santa Claus -- Nikolaos of Myra, a fourth-century Greek Bishop of Myra (Demre, part of modern-day Turkey) in Lycia -- were disinterred for examination. In 2004, a three-dimensional digital reconstruction of his face was made. His modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas, itself from a series of elisions and corruptions of the transliteration of "Saint Nikolaos":

"Luigi Martino could not have known what he would see on that day in May 1953 when he peered into the open crypt, which reportedly contained the bones of the real Santa Claus, St. Nicholas of Myra. Since 1087, when they had been removed by force from Myra, a town on the southern coast of Turkey known today as Demre, the bones of Nicholas had rested undis­turbed here in Bari, a seaside city on the southeastern coast of Italy. They were interred inside a sarcophagus constructed of huge blocks of reinforced concrete for safekeeping. Then, some three hundred years after the bones had been brought to Bari, a Serbian tsar named Uros II Milutin donated a large quantity of silver that was molded to cover and decorate the rather plain and somber tomb. In a four-year renovation process begin­ning in 1953, Milutin's silver covering was removed in order to restore the original, gray, Romanesque design of the tomb. The Vatican made a special request to examine the bones of the saint during the restoration. Enter Luigi Martino, anatomy professor from the University of Bari.

 "Just an hour before midnight on May 5, 1953, with bands of visitors and pilgrims keeping candlelit vigil outside the Basil­ica di San Nicola, Martino, the Archbishop of Bari, and mem­bers of a specially appointed pontifical commission descended the granite steps leading into the underground, lamp-lit crypt. The contents of the tomb were more than a matter of histori­cal reckoning -- they were a matter of civic pride and religious devotion. In just four days, Bari would host its largest and most important annual celebration, La Festa di Bari, to com­memorate the relocation of the bones to Bari. There would be parades and parties and pilgrims from Russia, Greece, France, and England. 

"Martino must have wondered what would happen if he did not have good news to report. When the heavy slab capping the tomb was lifted, he found to his relief human bone remains. A skull had been carefully placed at one end by Pope Urban II himself, instigator of the First Crusade, when he consecrated the tomb just two years after it arrived in Bari. The rest of the bones were scattered about the rectangular enclosure in no particular order and submerged in 'a clear liquid, like water from a rock.' Pilgrims referred to this liquid as the manna or myrrh of Nicholas; once a year Dominican priests bent low to a small opening in the sarcophagus to collect the liquid in a vial. Martino took thousands of detailed measurements and x-ray photographs. Some sketches were made of the measure­ments of the skull and frame. But an authentic reconstruction of Nicholas would only come 50 years later, as advancements led to technology far more sophisticated than what was avail­able to Martino.

"By 2004 the imaging technology was ready. Caroline Wilkinson, a facial anthropologist with the University of Man­chester, England, used the measurements taken by Martino in the 1950s and some luminous sound probes of the tomb to generate a three-dimensional digital reconstruction of St. Nicholas' face and head for a one-hour BBC documentary [see above and below]. His skin was given an olive complexion, reflecting his Mediterra­nean ancestry; his hair and beard were colored white, signify­ing the fact that the bones in the tomb belonged to an elderly man, well over the age of sixty. Approximately five feet ten inches in height, his most distinguishing features were his heavy-set jaw and a broken nose. Wilkinson comments, 'It must have been a very hefty blow because it's the nasal bones between the eyes that are broken.' In the media coverage of the story, this detail quickly became the most tantalizing tid­bit. How did it happen? Wilkinson shrugs her shoulders and conjectures, 'I heard he once punched a bishop,' referring to a
legendary altercation between St. Nicholas and Arius, an infa­mous heretic, at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Others specu­lated about a hitherto unknown rough and rowdy past or an incident that might have occurred when he was arrested dur­ing the great persecution of Christianity in 303. No conclu­sions can be reached with absolute historical certainty. What is more, Martino had earlier reported that nearly all the bones were chipped or broken, reflecting the fact that they were hast­ily gathered by sailors and roughly transported from the south­ern coast of Turkey to the port of Bari in 1087. The break in the nasal ridge might be similarly explained.

"But the bones present other clues about the man. From his study, Martino observes that Nicholas probably suffered from chronic arthritis and perhaps pronounced cephalic pain, evi­denced by an unnatural thickening of the inside of the skull bone. Of course, it must be remembered that he died at an old age, so it is unknown whether the arthritis and head pressure were natural ailments of an elderly man or untimely pains that he carried in his body for years."  


Adam C. English


The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus


Baylor Press


Copyright 2012 by Baylor University Press


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