The Feast of San Gennaro, the saint-patron of Naples, takes place every year on September 19. San Gennaro (in English Saint Januarius) owes his fame and his election as Patron of Naples to his miraculous blood.
The martyrdom of Gennaro
According to an ancient Catholic tradition, Januarius was born on April 21, 272 in Beneventum (latin name for the modern Benevento).
In the first years of the Fourth Century, during the persecution of Christians by the emperor Diocletian, Januarius (who was at the time the Bishop of Beneventum) went to visit the worshippers in Pozzuoli, together with the deacon Festus and the reader Desiderius.
In those days his friend Sossius, the deacon of Miseno, was arrested by Draconzio, the governor of Campania. Januarius, Festus and Desiderius tried to intercede for his release, and for this they were arrested and condemned to be devoured by lions in the Amphitheatre of Pozzuoli.
San Gennaro and the beasts
According to the tradition at the moment of the execution a miracle happened: the beasts knelt in front of Gennaro, and began to lick his feet. This event is also depicted in a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi 1636, currently kept in the Cathedral of Pozzuoli.
Draconzio the persecutor, after witnessing the miracle, ordered that Januarius and his friends be beheaded. They were led to the Forum Vulcani (the Solfatara of Pozzuoli) and suffered the martyrdom on September 19, 305.
After the beheading, a pious woman named Eusebia collected the blood of San Gennaro in two ampoules.
The burial of San Gennaro
The body of San Gennaro was buried in the Agro Marciano. A century later, the bishop of Naples Giovanni I moved it to the catacombs of Capodimonte, now known as Catacombs of San Gennaro
The blood of San Gennaro
The two ampoules that contain the blood of San Gennaro are kept in the Cathedral of Naples, inside a small round theca behind the altar of the Royal Chapel of the Treasure of St. Januarius. One of the ampoules is 3/4 full, the other one is almost empty, since King Charles of Bourbon moved its content to Madrid when he became King of Spain.
The miracle of San Gennaro
The miracle of San Gennaro consists in the liquefaction of the dried blood, and it happens three times a year: on September 19 (when the Catholic Church celebrates the cult of the Saint), on the Saturday before the first Sunday of May, and on December 16.
Although there are many theories about that (by the scientific research and the Church itself), hundreds of worshippers (not only Neapolitans!) crowd the Cathedral of Naples to witness the prodigious event: the popular tradition considers the liquifying of the blood of San Gennaro as a good omen; if the blood stays dry, it is instead inauspicious.
The Sanctuary of San Gennaro
The Sanctuary of San Gennaro was built in Pozzuoli, near the place of martyrdom. There is a marble slab inside, which was considered the one on which San Gennaro was beheaded. In the past, many people periodically spotted some reddish liquid on it, that they identified as the blood of San Gennaro.
This prodigy was however refuted by recent scientific studies according to which the slab is a fragment of an early Christian altar on which there are traces of red paint and wax. However, there are still many devotees in Naples and Pozzuoli who continue to venerate this slab as a prodigious relic.
The feast of San Gennaro
“Era la festa di San Gennaro,
quanta folla per la via!
C’era la banda di Pignataro
che suonava il “Parsifallo”
e il maestro, sul piedistallo,
ci faceva delizia’…
Era la festa di San Gennaro,
l’anno appresso, canti e suoni,
bancarelle e prucessioni
chi se po’ dimentica’?
C’era la banda di Pignataro,
centinaia di bancarelle
di torrone e di nocelle
che facevano ‘ncanta’.”
This famous Neapolitan song called “Dove sta Zazà?” (Where’s Zazà?) and composed in 1944 by Raffaele Cutolo and Giuseppe Cioffi, briefly describes the Feast of San Gennaro.
The lyrics mentions a crowded street, with a band playing music and lots of stands selling nougat and walnuts.
Nowadays you can breath the festive atmosphere in Naples since the very beginning of September: the stands selling roasted nuts, candies and toys fill the streets, and the showy colorful illuminations animate the whole city. The enthusiastic and festive atmosphere culminates on September 19, the day in which the Catholic Church commemorates the martyrdom of San Gennaro: his relics are exhibited to the worshippers, and rituals, processions, lotteries, parades and musical events take place, together with a wonderful show of fireworks.
The inhabitants of the city of Naples feel united under the protection of their Saint-patron, on this occasion more than ever. The crowd outside the Cathedral of Naples exults and acclaims the miracle to the cry of “Long live San Gennaro!”.
The devotees have a sort of familiar relationship with the Saint: some of them call him simply “Genna'” upon praying, or “Yellow Face”, referring to the bronze color of the statue that is carried in procession. There are approximatively over 25 millions devotees in the world.
The Feast of San Gennaro in New York
A feast dedicated to San Gennaro takes place in New York as well, every year in mid-September. It originally was a religious commemoration, but today it represents the relationship between the Italians and the Americans. The feast was organized for the first time in 1926. It takes place in the neighborhood of Manhattan called Little Italy: Mulberry Street is closed to traffic and gives space to parades, games and food stands (in particular sausages and zeppole). The celebrations begin with a procession that starts from the oldest church of the neighborhood.
A similar feast takes place in the Italian Quarter in Bronx, and it lasts several days: it is totally similar to the Feast of San Gennaro that takes place in Naples.