One of the most amazing things to do in Naples is to attend the Festa di San Gennaro on 19th September each year. On the feast day of San Gennaro Naples celebrates this ancient patron saint of the city. Crowds gather in the Duomo, or Cathedral, to pray for and witness one of the most famous miracles in Christianity. The blood of San Gennaro, or Saint Januarius, mysteriously liquefies – an event nobody can quite explain.
If you visit Naples around the time of the three miracles each year, it’s well worth experiencing this for yourself. You can call it fervour, faith or superstition, it’s one of the best ways of getting close to the heart and soul of Naples. It’s a captivating event, full of anticipation, tension and drama – especially when things don’t quite go to plan.
- 1 Who was San Gennaro?
- 2 When is the Festa di San Gennaro, Naples?
- 3 Where is it held?
- 4 What is the San Gennaro miracle?
- 5 Are the miracle stories true?
- 6 Can I attend the Festa di San Gennaro?
- 7 When should I get there? Is the seating first come, first served?
- 8 What happens during the service?
- 9 What if the miracle doesn’t occur?
- 10 And if the miracle does happen?
- 11 What happens afterwards?
- 12 St Patricia
- 13 The Feast of San Gennaro, New York City
- 14 Where to stay in Naples
Who was San Gennaro?
San Gennaro, or St Januarius, is the main patron saint of the city of Naples, Italy. Later sources state that he was Bishop of nearby Benevento, around the beginning of the 4th century AD. During the persecutions of Christians by Emperor Diocletian, he and several other priests were captured and beheaded.
When is the Festa di San Gennaro, Naples?
The saint’s feast day is September 19th, but the celebration also takes place on the 16th December, and the Saturday before the first Sunday in May.
Where is it held?
It is held at the Duomo, Naples – the city’s cathedral. It’s on Via Duomo, close to the corner with Via dei Tribunali, in the city’s historic Spaccanapoli area.
What is the San Gennaro miracle?
Three times a year, what is purportedly the congealed blood of St Gennaro miraculously liquefies during a ceremony.
Some of his blood was supposedly collected shortly after his execution. His head and body were buried in the Catacombs of San Gennaro outside the city, before being moved around Campania. They were eventually retrieved and taken to the Duomo in Naples.
His blood has been preserved in two sealed glass vials for centuries. The first reports of it liquefying date back to the late 14th century. Three times a year, during an elaborate ceremony in the Duomo, the congealed blood liquefies. It is one of the most unusual Roman Catholic miracles. If the miracle occurs, it is taken as a sign that San Gennaro is still looking after the city. If it doesn’t occur, it’s taken as a sign that something very bad may be about to happen.
Are the miracle stories true?
One-off Christian miracles are one thing – some believe in them, some don’t. This miracle of San Gennaro intrigued me because of its regular occurrences, three times a year. Apparently the blood also liquefies when a special visitor – such as a Pope – comes to Naples.
The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t want the blood tested scientifically. They fear that if the blood is exposed to the elements, the miracle may stop occurring. So it’s always going to be a matter of faith.
Clotted blood can be liquefied if stirred, but cannot then revert to a solid state. So nobody has been able to explain why this happens, and at regular intervals.
Can I attend the Festa di San Gennaro?
You can, but if you want any kind of view, you’ll need to arrive very early. The Mass service begins at 9.00 am. I was one of the first there, at 6.30 am, along with two equally curious Sardinians who were also on holiday in Naples. We were rewarded for our early start by being interviewed live on Neapolitan breakfast TV. This caused enormous mirth at the hotel where I was staying.
When should I get there? Is the seating first come, first served?
You really shouldn’t leave it much later than 7.00 am. There were relatively few people around by this time, but by 7.30 the piazzetta, or cathedral forecourt, had filled up. Most of the early arrivals were ladies of relatively advanced years. The line of people was snaking down Via Duomo long before the doors were opened.
We had to wait until 8.40, twenty minutes before the start of the service, for the doors to be opened. The poor verger who opened them quickly bolted for his life. We were in Naples Cathedral, a major holy Roman Catholic church, but all courtesy was quickly forgotten. The scramble for the front seats, with the best view, had all the decorum of a mass migration of wildebeest.
I was somewhere in the middle of this rampaging horde of stampeding grandmothers. I started third person from the door. I only just got a seat in the fourth row.
What happens during the service?
An entourage of clergy brings the two ampoules containing the blood along with other relics of San Gennaro. These are placed close to the high altar, and the ampoule is held up to show that the contents are solid.
All the while, a Mass service progresses. I stood up along with those around me for part of the service, and found that was standing on my chair when I tried to sit back down. I suggested, perhaps a little impolitely, that they move elsewhere, which they did.
This was happening all around me, a total free-for-all. We found that if we stayed seated, someone would nonchalantly walk in and stand right in front of you. I managed to persuade someone who did this to me to move. A few rows behind, an unseemly wrestling match soon developed when someone else tried the same thing.
After a great deal of praying and congregational jostling, the blood in the larger vial of the two normally liquefies. A soldier in Swiss Guard uniform, complete with ostrich feather plume, marched along part of the chancel with the vial of blood, passing it to the celebrant. I could clearly see that the contents of it had, indeed, liquefied. The Swiss Guardsman then turned and waved a large white handkerchief to signal that the blood miracle had, indeed, occurred again.
What if the miracle doesn’t occur?
If the saint’s blood doesn’t liquefy, the congregation gradually becomes more and more anxious. It has been known to liquefy almost immediately, and when I attended we had to wait two-and-a-quarter hours for the miracle.
It is considered a very bad omen if the blood fails to liquefy. One time St Januarius’ blood failed to oblige, in 1944, the nearby volcano Vesuvius erupted soon afterwards.
And if the miracle does happen?
When the white handkerchief was waved, the congregation, rather than the volcano, erupted.
It was so uplifting to be in the middle of such unbounded joy. It was like Italy had won the World Cup, Napoli had won the scudetto (the Italian football championship) and the President had given everyone in the city free pizza for a year. All at once.
There was also a strong sense of relief among the congregation. Once again Napoli had received deliverance from the wrath of Vesuvius. The people around me started to line up to see the relics on the high altar. I had done quite enough queuing for one day, and ventured out into the bright Napoli sunshine.
What happens afterwards?
The liquefied blood is then taken outside to the Duomo piazzetta, where the officiating Cardinal addresses the waiting crowds. It is then returned to the high altar, where it is kept on display for the following eight days.
The Festa di San Gennaro is a holiday in Napoli, and the surrounding streets are closed off for processions during the afternoon. It’s also a good excuse to buy more gifts and candy for the kids, with stalls selling these through the day.
Curiously, some other saints of Italy have also had blood miracle stories associated with them. You don’t have to travel far from the Duomo to witness another.
St Patricia was a saint from the 7th century AD who settled and died in Naples. She is indeed another patron saint of the city. Her relics are preserved and venerated in the nearby church of San Gregorio Armeno. Some of her blood is also preserved in glass vials next to the main alter in the church.
St Patricia’s blood miracle is as remarkable as that of San Gennaro. It liquefies after the 9.30 am Mass every Tuesday, and on her feast day, 25th August.
The Feast of San Gennaro, New York City
The New York branch of the Neapolitan diaspora also celebrates San Gennaro on 19th September. A Mass is held in the Church of the Most Precious Blood in Little Italy, followed by a procession of the saint’s statue through the streets. A huge street party then ensues on Mulberry Street.
Where to stay in Naples
The Spaccanapoli area is a great place to stay, especially if you’re in town for the Festa di San Gennaro.
The Hotel Al Duomo di Napoli is right across the street from the Duomo, and some rooms have great views of it. A two night stay around the next San Gennaro feast (December 2018) costs just US $ 168 at the time of writing.
There is also a huge range of Naples bed and breakfast options around Napoli Duomo and Spaccanapoli, many with similar rates to the Hotel Al Duomo di Napoli.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times. His images are frequently used throughout the world by tourism bodies such as Visit Britain and Visit Wales.