The feast of San Gennaro in Naples

September 19 is the feast of San Gennaro, patron saint of the city of Naples. The event is very much felt by the Neapolitans, and the celebrations last for days.

Born in Naples, in the second half of the III century, Gennaro was elected bishop of Benevento. He was martyred in 305 AD, under the emperor Diocletian, while he was going to visit a deacon imprisoned because of persecutions. He was imprisoned as well with his comrades and then beheaded.

On 19 September (the date of his martyrdom) one of the most famous mysteries of Italy takes place. The miracle of the liquefaction of the blood of the saint.

The event is also repeated on the Saturday before the first Sunday of May, date of the translation of the body of the saint, and December 16, the anniversary of the eruption of Vesuvius in 1631, when they say that San Gennaro stopped the arrival of the lava at the gates of the city.

The Cathedral of Naples © Berthold Werner

The Cathedral of Naples © Berthold Werner

The blood is kept in two ampoules in a chapel of the Cathedral of Naples that contains the treasure of the saint. During the ceremony, the archbishop takes the two ampoules, stored in a case behind the altar of the chapel, and exposes them publicly, waiting for the fluid contained within them, normally solid, to become completely liquid.

The Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

The Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

If the blood melts it is a good omen: the archbishop asks the saint to intervene for the poor, the young unemployed, the crime and all the other problems in Naples. San Gennaro is always there to help his city.

But is it a miracle or a trick?

The Catholic Church has never officially recognized the phenomenon as miraculous, although having approved popular veneration.

The phenomenon is still regarded as unexplained, but there are theories that try to explain it scientifically.

In a study from 1991 (published on the scientific magazine Nature), three Italian scientists, Franco Ramaccini, Sergio Della Sala e Luigi Garlaschelli, propose that thixotropy may furnish an explanation. Thixotropy denotes the property of certain gels to liquefy when stirred or vibrated, and to solidify again when left to stand. An example of this property is the ketchup.

“In the typical blood-liquefaction ceremony,they wroteperformed at different room temperatures, the act of checking whether liquefaction has occurred comprises repeatedly inverting the glass-walled portable relic case: a shear stress is thereby applied at this critical moment. Thus, a successful performance of the rite does not involve any conscious cheating. Indeed, inadvertent liquefaction events have been observed many times over the centuries during handling for repairs to the case that contains the sealed vial.”

It would take to open the vial to establish the chemical nature of the relic, but it is forbidden by the Catholic Church.

There are those who speak of the scientific phenomenon, those of alchemical trick, and those who talk about miracles … What is certain is that San Gennaro is the Patron of Naples and in those days all await the “miracle” with the folklore typical of the Neapolitans. Participating in the ceremony is an almost surreal experience and when the news of the liquefaction arrives, along with the tolling of bells to be screamed (even to those who are not believers): VIVA SAN GENNARO!

The ceremony can be followed in streaming on the website of the church of Naples.

In the the U.S. you’ll find big San Gennaro festivals in New York and Los Angeles.


Cover image: The relic with the blood of San Gennaro © Paola Magni

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