The Ceremony of the Liquefaction of the Blood of San Gennaro
San Gennaro’s blood liquifies every September 19th. The event is repeated December 16th, and every Saturday before the first Sunday in May, as well as on special occasions, such as for visits of prominent people, or threats from natural disasters
The miracle is supposed to usher in a year of good fortune for Neapolitans, and thousands of devotees will crowd into the Duomo, Naples Cathedral, to witness the miracle of the liquefaction of the blood of their protector and Patron Saint, San Gennaro. Shrouded in myth and superstition, the liquefaction is a religious ceremony that dates back to the late 1300s.
According to legend, San Gennaro was born sometime in the 3rd century to a rich patrician family. At fifteen years of age, he became a priest. During the persecution of Christians by Emperor Diocletian, San Gennaro was sentenced to death for his beliefs, and beheaded in Pozzuoli in 305 AD, a scene that was depicted by Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi. His bones and blood were then saved by a woman named Eusebia just after his death.
In the 5th century, his remains were interred in what is known today as the Catacombs of San Gennaro. You can still see his tomb and the oldest known portrait of him there today. They were moved again in the 10th, 12th, and 15th centuries, finally finding a home in a special crypt beneath the altar at the Duomo. In a side niche of the church, San Gennaro’s dried blood is stored in two hermetically sealed ampoules (vials) and adorned in a silver reliquary. Three times a year these vials are removed and a procession moves the bust of San Gennaro and the vials of blood to the high altar of the Cathedral.
The blood doesn’t always liquify on command, sometimes taking several hours, or liquifying several days before the celebration, or – most ominously – not liquifying at all.
Scientists have wanted to study the phenomena, but are not allowed to open the ampoule as Church leaders fear they will damage or ruin the blood. Hence, scientists have used alternative methods, but have been unable to come up with an adequate explanation for the phenomenon. Many people note that during the years when San Gennaro’s blood has not liquified, bad things have happened to the city. Others maintain that when they come to mass and witness the liquefaction, in particular kissing the reliquary, they are healed of all sorts of ailments.
At the 19th September mass, the church is usually packed and the mass begins at 9.00. The Cardinal himself holds the mass, thereafter processing to the side altar and taking out the reliquary. The Cardinal then moves to the front of the church while the congregation applauds and waves white handkerchiefs. He walks with the liquefied blood down the middle aisle for all to see. He continues his procession outside and announces to the city that the liquefaction has occurred, then he returns the blood to the altar. The reliquary is left there for the next eight days to show the people of Naples that San Gennaro has yet again blessed the city.
Thereafter, the streets of Naples are closed off for religious processions. Candies and children’s toys are sold on the streets, decorations are everywhere, and a festive ambiance fills the city.