05 December 2022

A ‘virtual tour’ of a dozen
churches and cathedrals
named after Saint Nicholas

An icon of Saint Nicholas in a church in Crete … in time, he became Santa Claus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

One of my favourite restaurants in Milton Keynes must be the Olive Tree, a Turkish Mediterranean Restaurant and Bar on Midsummer Boulevard.

As our Christmas shopping began, Charlotte and I had a late lunch there last week, and were amused to see the Olive Tree is offering a special Christmas menu. At top of the menu, it asks: ‘Did you know that Santa Clause (sic) also known as Saint Nicholas was born in Turkey, who was much admired for his kindness and generosity. So here is our freshly prepared dishes in honour of Santa Clause.’

Tomorrow is the Feast of Saint Nicholas of Myra, the ‘real Santa Claus’ (6 December 2022). But, instead of retelling the story of the bishop who risked his life when he defended Orthodox doctrine against the Arains at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325, I thought it would be interesting to follow in his footsteps, visiting or revisiting a number of cathedrals, churches or former church sites to which he has given his name.

During the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, I offered a number of ‘virtual tours’ of churches and other sites. My offering this evening, on the eve of the Feast of Saint Nicholas, is a ‘virtual tour’ with Saint Nicholas of a half-dozen churches in Greece, and a half-dozen more spread across the Czech Republic, Malta, Italy, Spain, Slovakia and Turkey.

1, Saint Nicholas, Rethymnon Harbour:

The Church of Saint Nicholas, near the bus station in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of Saint Nicholas is in a small square formed at the corner of Priskosoridi street and Emmanouil Kefalogianni avenue, the street that runs around the shore of the rocky bay beneath the western slopes of the Venetian Fortezza.

This small chapel or church, close to the bus station, is surrounded by good fish restaurants and tavernas. This is now a suburban part of western Rethymnon, and is slowly becoming a part of the tourist area. But, only a few decades ago and within living memory, this was an area closely associated with fishers and their fishing boats.

Saint Nicholas, as well as being the patron saint of children and the inspiration for Santa Claus, is also the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, ships and sailing, which explains the presence of this modern church dedicated to his name in this part of Rethymnon.

2, Saint Nicholas, Fortezza, Rethymnon:

The former Venetian Cathedral of Saint Nicholas on the Fortezza in Rethymnon … the stump of the former minaret is to the right (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Fortezza towers above the city of Rethymnon. It was built by the Venetians during their rule in Crete (1204-1669) to protect the city and people from Ottoman invasions, on the hill of Paleokastro and the site the acropolis of ancient Rithymna.

The cathedral of Rethymnon was destroyed during a Turkish attack on the city by the Pasha of Algeria, Ulu Ali Reis, in 1571. A new Episcopal Palace was also built on the Fortezza in 1575, and the foundation stone for a new cathedral was laid in 1583 by the Latin Bishop of Rethymnon, Bartolomeo Chiapponi.

The new Venetian cathedral on the Fortezza was dedicated to Saint Nicholas and stands next to the former Episcopal Palace. When the cathedral was completed in 1585, Bishop Chiapponi’s successor, Bishop Giulio Carrara, refused to celebrated the Mass there, claiming conditions in the cathedral were too cramped and there were no sacred vessels there.

During the Ottoman period, Saint Nicholas Cathedral was converted into the Sultan Ibrahim Khan, named in honour of the reigning sultan, adding an over-sized dome, with a base diameter of 11 metres, was added. The former mosque is now used for exhibitions and as a venue for music events and recordings.

3, Saint Nicholas Church (Nerantze Mosque), Rethymnon:

The former Santa Maria Church and Nerantze Mosque glimpsed through the streets of the old town of Rethymnon … it became Saint Nicholas Church in 1925 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Nerantze Mosque or Gazi Hussein Mosque is on the corner of Ethnikis Antistaseos and Vernardou streets, and faces onto what was once the grand Venetian piazza of the old city of Rethymnon.

In Venetian times, this was the Church of Santa Maria. It was built in the style of Saint Mark’s in Venice and faced a large open piazza that included a clock tower, fountains and public buildings. It was originally the church of an Augustinian Priory, but only the east and north side of the original building survive.

After the Turks left Crete, the mosque was reconsecrated as a church in 1925 with a dedication to Saint Nicholas. However, it was seldom if ever used as a church, and for many years housed a Music School. Now known as the Municipal Odeon, it is a venue for lectures, concerts and theatre performances, and is sometimes open to the public. The minaret has been restored in recent years.

4, Saint Nicholas, Aghios Nikolaos:

The mediaeval church of Saint Nicholas in Aghios Nikolaos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Aghios Nikoloas in Crete takes its name from Saint Nicholas. The town is built around an inner lagoon, Voulismeni, and local people try to convince visiting tourists that the lake is fathomless.

The town takes its name from the tiny 11th century church of Aghios Nikólaos (Saint Nicholas). Many years ago, a visit to this Church of Aghios Nikólaos, with its icons of the saint, was enough to end the doubts about Santa Claus that were beginning to emerge in hearts of two small children.

5, Aghios Nikolaos, Georgioupoli, Crete:

The picturesque modern Church of Saint Nicholas on a tiny islet off Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The tiny white-washed chapel of Aghios Nikolaos (Άγιος Νικόλαος, Saint Nicholas) is on a small rocky islet off Georgioupoli in Crete. Rather than reaching the chapel by boat many tourists take the challenge each day of walking out to the chapel along a narrow rocky causeway.

It is said the chapel was built about 100 years ago by an anonymous sailor to give thanks for his rescue. Today, it is a much-photographed landmark that has become a symbol of Crete in the way that the Vlacherna Monastery close to the southern tip of the Kanoni peninsula has become an image of Corfu.

The rocky outcrop of Aghios Nikolaos is officially listed as a Greek island, and the chapel is a popular choice for weddings.

6, Aghios Nikolas, Élos, Crete :

The modern parish church of Aghios Nikolas in Élos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The small village of Élos is 60 km south-west of Chania in west Crete, on the road to the Monastery of Chrissoskalitissa and the sandy beach of Elafonissi. Élos is one of the nine villages that are known collectively as the Enneachora, and is known for its chestnut forests.

Behind a taverna in the village, an old arch is said to have been part of an ancient Roman aqueduct. But the real hidden treasure in Elos is the Byzantine Church of Saint John the Theologian. This is a single-room, vaulted church, measuring 11.20 x 4.46 meters, and probably dates from the first half of the 14th century. he frescoes of Christ and the saints are attributed to Ioannis Pagomenos, a well-known icon writer and painter from Kissamos.

This tiny church, hidden in a shaded corner among trees behind a taverna, is almost dwarfed by the neighbouring modern parish church of Aghios Nikolas of Élos.

7, Saint Nicholas, Prague:

The Church of Saint Nicholas at night in the Old Town Square in Prague, with the statue of John Hus in the centre of the square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of Saint Nicholas stands on the corner of the Old Town Square, Pařížská Street and Franz Kafka Square in Prague. Its beautiful green baroque towers and dome can be seen throughout the old town centre.

This monumental church was built in 1732-1735 to designs by Kilián Ignaz Dientzenhofer, on the site of an earlier 13th century Gothic church, also dedicated to Saint Nicholas.

The church was the parish church of the Old Town and the meeting place until the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn the opposite side of the square was completed in the 14th century.

The church became part of a Benedictine monastery in 1620. The early mediaeval church was destroyed by fire, and the present church was completed in 1735, and its white façade decorated with statues by Antonin Braun. When the Emperor Joseph II closed all monasteries not engaged in socially useful activities in 1781, the church was stripped bare and the interior decorations were sold off.

The empty building was used as a granary and then as a registry archive. The church returned to its original purpose in 1871 when it was used by the Russian Orthodox Church. The Czechoslovak Hussite Church was founded here in 1920, reviving the legacy of the reformer Jan Hus. Since then, this has been the main church of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church and its Prague Diocese, and so it is often known as Saint Nicholas Cathedral.

During World War II, the church was used by Czech partisans as a hidden site for Radio Prague.

8, Saint Nicholas, Valletta, Malta:

The Church of Saint Nicholas in Valletta (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Church of Saint Nicholas also known as the Church of All Souls, in Valletta, the capital of Malta, is used by both the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholic Church.

The church was originally built as a Greek Orthodox church in 1569. It was handed over to the Confraternity of the Souls in Purgatory in 1639, which rebuilt the church in the Baroque style in 1652. Since 2014, the church has been used by both a parish of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and a Greek Catholic parish.

9, Cattedrale di San Nicolò di Mira, Noto, Sicily

The Duomo or Cattedrale di San Nicolò di Mira in Noto, Sicily (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The old city of Noto was destroyed by the 1693 earthquake, and a new city was then built on the bank of River Asinaro, nearer the Ionian Sea. The new city was the vision of Giuseppe Lanza, Duke of Camastra, and was laid out on a grid system by Giovanni Battista Landolina. The architects Rosario Gagliardi, Vincenzo Sinatra, Paolo Labisi, Francesco Sortino and others, made the new Noto a masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque.

Most of the buildings are built with a soft tufa stone, and in the summer sunlight they reflect a warm, bright honey tone. They include cathedrals, churches, convents, bell towers, religious buildings, and several palaces. Halfway along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, in the Piazza del Municipio, Noto’s imposing cathedral or Duomo, the Cattedrale di San Nicolò di Mira, in the Piazza, was finished in 1776. Dozens of steps climb up to the towering cathedral its twin towers and an imposing dome that was restored after it collapsed dramatically in 1996.

Noto and its churches were declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 2002.

10, The Church of San Nicolás de Bari and San Pedro Mártir, Valencia

The Church of San Nicolás de Bari and San Pedro Mártir has been called the ‘Sistine Chapel’ of Valencia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of San Nicolás de Bari and San Pedro Mártir has been called the ‘Sistine Chapel’ of Valencia and a ‘Baroque jewel’. It is one of the finest examples of a Gothic church with baroque decorations. Frescoes and plasterwork cover the entire interior, from small pilasters in chapels, to the walls, apse and vaulted ceiling, creating a visual and colour spectacle.

The Church of Saint Nicholas was built ca 1242, and is tucked in the streets of the old town in Valencia. It almost hidden from view in a laneway off Calle Caballeros, adding to the surprise awaiting visitors. The church stands on the site of a Roman-Hispanic temple that later became a mosque with the Muslim conquest of the area. It was founded in the 13th century as one of the first 12 parish churches in the city following the reconquest of Valencia by King James I in 1238, and from an early stage was associated with the Dominicans.

The church was remodelled on the initiative of the Borja family in the Gothic style between 1419 and 1455, with the Gothic rib vault contracting in the central nave. The refurbishments include a rose window alluding to a miracle of Saint Nicholas. The interior was completed between 1690 and 1693, and was decorated in the baroque style by Juan Pérez Castiel, who filled it with frescoes depicting the lives and miracles of the two patrons, Saint Nicholas of Bari and Saint Peter of Verona or San Pedro Mártir (Saint Peter Martyr).

11, Saint Nicholas, Bratislava, Slovakia:

Saint Nicholas Church (left) seen from the ramparts of Bratislava Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On my way down the hill from Bratislava Castle during a visit three years ago, I stopped to look at the locked Saint Nicholas Church, an Orthodox church built in 1661 by Countess Frances Khuen, the widow of Paul Pálffy (1589-1655), before she died 1672.

This early baroque church is simple, single nave church with a small wooden bell tower. It was built on the site of an earlier Gothic church dating back to the 11th century. After the castle area was incorporated into Bratislava, the church was administrated by a Catholic funeral society in Saint Martin's parish.

The church was no longer in use by 1936 when it was given to the Greek Catholic Church of Bratislava, an Orthodox-style church in communion with Rome. At the end of World War II in 1945, the church roof caught fire and the church was rebuilt by the Greek Catholic Church in 1945-1950. A violent persecution of the Greek Catholic Church in Slovakia began in 1950 and the church was given to the Orthodox Church.

12, Saint Nicholas Church, Gemiler Island, Turkey:

Saint Nicholas Church on Gemiler Island … was this is true burial place of Saint Nicholas? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Gemiler Island is off the coast of Turkey, between near the city of Fethiye and the Greek island of Rhodes. The Turkish name Gemile from the Greek καμήλα (kamila, ‘camel’). The island has several church ruins on Gemiler, dating from the fourth and sixth centuries.

Archaeologists believe Saint Nicholas was buried there after his death in 326. His relics remained there until the 650s, when the island was abandoned as it was threatened by an Arab fleet. They were then moved to Myra, 40 km to the east.

Lighting candles at the chapel of Aghios Nikolaos on an islet off Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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