Januarius, Saint

Januarius, Saint

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Twice a year in the Cappella del Tesoro (Chapel of the Treasure) at the main cathedral in Naples, a small vial containing a dark substance is put on public display. More often than not, within a few minutes, the substance begins to liquefy and even foam, a process often described as boiling. After a while, the substance inside the vial returns to its solid state and is returned to its permanent resting place elsewhere in the church. Records of this reputed miracle date to the fourteenth century. The substance inside the vial is claimed to be the blood of the martyred saint, Bishop Januarius of Ben Vento.

According to legend, Saint Januarius was a victim of the persecution of Christians that occurred under the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian toward the end of the third century. He was initially cast into a fiery furnace, but heemerged unharmed. He was then tossed to the lions, but they refused to approach him. He and his companions were, however, finally killed by beheading at Pozzuoli. At the time of his death, supposedly, two vials of his blood were collected and taken with the body to the catacombs. The body and the vials were moved several times over the next years, but they were finally given a permanent resting place in the Neapolitan cathedral in the thirteenth century. Today one of the vials is essentially empty, its contents having been given in small quantities to several prominent people in the eighteenth century.

Since the fourteenth century, for eight days in May (commemorating the entrance of the saint’s body into Naples) and again in September (beginning on the legendary day of martyrdom, September 19), the vials have been placed on view. Over the centuries the vials have been brought out at different times to respond to the visits of prominent individuals or to ward off threatened disasters, such as an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. For many years, the vial was also displayed for several days in December.

The vial containing the blood is housed in a silver case, which has a clear glass window for viewing and a handle by which it may be carried. When placed on display, the vial is placed close to a silver container said to contain parts of the skull of Saint Januarius. The ritual begins with prayers that are repeated by the congregants requesting that the “miracle” take place. Also present are a group of poor women, the “zie di San Gennaro” (aunts of Saint Januarius), who have become known for the enthusiasm with which they join in the supplication for the miracle—which may become even more exuberant if there is a delay in the liquefaction of the substance in the vial.

Those who support the miraculous nature of the Miracle of Saint Januarius have bolstered their belief with several arguments. First, they have noted that none have come forward in all the 600-plus years of the miracle to claim it is a hoax or attempt to expose the nature of any fraud. At the same time, the idea of a simple trick being worked on the public would necessarily involve many leading figures in the church over a number of centuries. They also point to an instance in 1902 in which a physicist was allowed to pass light through the vial during the liquefaction process and review the results on a spectroscope. The distinctive lines of the spectrum of blood appeared, suggesting there are at least traces of blood in the contents of the vial.

Critics have, however, proposed no simple trickery. Rather, they suggest a fraud occurred in the fourteenth century and does not involve anyone who lives today or in recent centuries. Herbert Thurston, a Roman Catholic apologist who wrote widely on the issue of miracles within the church, called attention to the existence of other, similar instances of the blood of saints. He noted that almost all of these were in and around Naples, suggesting that whatever change occurs in the vial is related to a secret discovered locally and fostered on posterity.

Contemporary critics suggest that at some point prior to the first recorded viewing of the miracle in 1389, the vials were filled with a substance that changes from solid to liquid at the normal temperature of the Cappella del Tesoro (somewhere between 66 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit). As to the contents of the vial, several suggestions have come forward, though until the vials are opened and a sample obtained for chemical analysis, no definitive answer can be given.

A team of Italian researchers, Luigi Garlaschelli, Franco Ramaccini, and Sergio Della Sala, have suggested a mixture of salt water, chalk, and iron chloride. American skeptical researcher Joe Nickell and John Fischer have suggested a mixture of a nondrying oil, such as olive oil, and a substance such as beeswax. Such a mixture is congealed in a cool space but quickly liquefies with a rise in temperature of just a few degrees. A small amount of pigment produces the appearance of blood.

Meanwhile, until more definitive tests are run on the contents of the vial itself, the twice-annual displays of the blood of Saint Januarius continue in the Cappella del Tesoro in Naples.

Sources:

Cruz, Joan Carroll. Relic: Shroud of Turin, True Cross, Blood of Januarius, History Mysticism and the Catholic Church. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 1984.
Nickell, Joe. Looking for a Miracle. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.
Thurston, Herbert. The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism. London: Burns &Oates, 1952.
, and Donald Attwater, eds. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. 4 vols. New York: P. J. Kennedy & Sons, 1956.