On May 9, 1087, Saint Nicholas was translated, as the liturgical phrase has it, and arrived in Bari. The feast of his translation is still celebrated on that day, the climax of a week of festivities. His arrival by sea is reenacted in the harbor, while the archbishop and notables of the town gather on land and in boats to greet the huge, garlanded effigy of the saint coming to shore.
Bari is prosperous today, the most well to do town in the new South, but then it was not “a great state” as the proud native son Nicephorus claimed. Saint Nicolas, it was thought, would help it to become one, just as Saint Mark, translated from Alexandria to Venice, had hallowed that city’s ambitions. Bari was a strategic base in the Norman kingdom that the family of Hauteville were consolidating in the South while their cousin William was conquering England. It was a crucial port for the great adventure in the East that would start with the First Crusade, a decade after Nicholas was translated. The acquisition of his wonder-working body contributed vitally to the aggrandizement of the town and of its new lord, Bohemond, the future prince of Antioch and cousin of Roger II, the future king of Sicily. Nicholas rendered illustrious the place where he came to rest, and by radiating holiness he confirmed his new owners’ legitimacy.
Colonnaded like a shady, mysterious grove and starry with sanctuary lamps hung from the vaults, this subterranean shrine focuses all attention on the tomb of the saint, in the center.
A huge four-teenth-century icon, covered in chased and beaten silver gilt, hangs over it. Above the crypt, in the chancel of the basilica, the high altar stands under an exquisitely sculpted octagonal ciborium.
The archbishop’s throne, behind it, is a remarkable example of fantastic Lombard sculpture. On the floor of the chancel, ornamented with inlaid marbles, a border of Cufic lettering gives the name of God in Arabic, while the crypt houses the world’s first Orthodox chapel in use inside a Catholic church. Saint Nicholas indeed has the power to overlook differences and effect reconciliations; like his Norman devotees, who employed Arabs, Greeks, Jews, and Latins in their kingdom in the South, he counts few people strangers.
Saint Nicholas’s powers extend into many spheres: he is a dependable guardian against explosives, the favorite intercessor for perfumers, and, in Paris, the patron saint of firemen; but above all, he is a protector of children, like his descendant Santa Claus. Also, as his biographer C.W. Jones put in his learned and witty study Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari and Manhattan, he has always shown” due respect for the material things in life” and so became the adopted saint of bankers, pawnbrokers, merchants, and shopkeepers. A typical miracle of Saint Nicholas, as told, for instance, in the twelfth-century comedy Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas, by Jean Bodel, shows the saint's sensitive understanding of the human acquisitive impulse and proper sympathy with the need for possessions in this life. In the play, an icon of the saint is set up to guard a treasure belonging to a heathen "barbarian. " When thieves steal it, the owner whips the saint's image in fury. In response, Nicholas appears to the robbers and terrorizes them into returning the hoard to its owner, who promptly converts to Christianity.
His care for children also inspired lullabies. In Apulia, tired mothers sing to their babies, telling them that the infant Nicholas abstained from his mother's breast out of piety and called instead for pen and ink and parchment. In these dialect songs, the miracle worker of Myra whose bones drip fragrant oil in the tomb in Bari often becomes recognizably Santa, provider of all things for children at Christmas.