by Mimmo Liguoro
San Gennaro, a long history dotted with incidents and events often poised between devotion and prejudice, faith and unbelief, passion and skepticism. But at all times, doubly linked to the town’s history, until a very strong identification between the patron saint and the psychological impulses of a people periodically threatened by natural disasters and historical events. Gennaro, Bishop of Benevento, decides to make an apostolic journey to Miseno with the deacon Festus and the reader Desiderio. In Miseno they have to meet the deacon Sossio, needy of help and advice. But Sossio is arrested, and soon after also Gennaro and his friends. The persecution by the Emperor Diocletian is ongoing. The four Christian leaders are sentenced to death: they will be torn by bears of the Amphitheatre of Pozzuoli. With their, three other prisoners will have to die: Procolo, Eutichete and Acunzo, all of Pozzuoli. But because of a mishap, the execution between the jaws of the beast can not be. So the seven men will be beheaded at the Solfatara.
Here the perimeter of the historical news is closed. But just here the legends and the traditions begin first of all. According to a legend, not established by any document, a pious woman – maybe the nurse of San Gennaro- collects the blood of the martyr in cruets. From that day of the year 305 began, between history and legend, the extraordinary story of St. Januarius and his blood, to which over time will be dedicated a cult of exceptional depth and involvement. And the devotion to San Gennaro was always connected to his blood, collected in vials guarded in the Cathedral of Naples, together with the bust, in which are gathered the bones attributed to his skull. The phenomenon of liquefaction is repeated on the Saturday preceding the first Sunday in May and on 19 of September, the day when the Saint is celebrated.
The body of San Gennaro was buried in the catacombs of Capodimonte, after remaining for a little over one hundred years in another place, l’Agro Marciano, not exactly identified. According to part of the tradition, the displacement of the bones of St. Gennaro would pass on the ancient Via antignano at Vomero, where the first miracle, not documented, would have happened.
At the catacombs the popular veneration for the bones of the Saint began, which gradually acquired the role of Great Protector of the city. But “the rest” of the bones of the martyr was to be disturbed repeatedly by resounding events, as the theft by the Duke longombardo SICON, who could carry the body of San Gennaro, after having stolen overnight from its niche, to the city of Benevento, where Gennaro was been Bishop.
For 325 years the bones of San Gennaro remained in Benevento. Then, due to political events related to the Norman King William the Bad, the remains were transported to the safe haven of the sanctuary of Montevergine.
Even then (between 1100 and 1200) the icon of “Mamma Schiavone”, Our Lady of Montevergine, was venerated. After many years, in 1480, the relics of San Gennaro, by now forgotten, were accidentally discovered under the main altar of the Church. In Naples, he news stimulated the desire to recover the body of the Saint, that for so long had been distant and almost forgotten.
But it took other 17 years, before the relics could return to the Cathedral. This was the 13 January 1497, after very lively skirmishes with the monks of Montevergine, who reluctantly surrendered their top order to return the case with the bones of San Gennaro. The story is told in the silver carvings of the frontal of the Treasury chapel. Closer to the head and blood of the Saint, those relics were placed in a Chapel, called “Succorpo”, obtained under the Cathedral at the behest of Bishop Carafa.
In all the time in which the bones were outside Naples, the cult of San Gennaro was developed and fortified.
For centuries, when the city was in danger for different reasons, above all the eruption of Vesuvius, but also for epidemics, earthquakes, sieges of foreign troops, the Neapolitan people asked that the gold and silver bust of San Gennaro and the ampoules with his blood were exposed and taken in procession.
So writes Vittorio Paliotti: “San Gennaro and Vesuvius, Vesuvius and San Gennaro, a pair whose two poles were the antithesis, but at the same time integrated, because when the Vesuvius was quiet, San Gennaro was prayed to leave it. But when the Vesuvius raged, San Gennaro was prayed to placate it.”
And 17 August 1389 is the date of the first “miracle” historically established. In Naples, different domination ran: from the Norman to the Swabian, from Anjou to Durazzo by the branch of Anjou, but the cult of San Gennaro remained as a benchmark in city life. And besides the people, the same rulers manifested great respect and veneration to the patron, probably convinced, in this, from the tangible consensus that the people showed towards the protector.
It was King Charles II of Anjou to order the construction of the gold and silver trunk that preserves the bones of the skull. Robert of Anjou made build the theca, also silver, to preserve the cruets with the blood. The protection against the threat of Vesuvius was the highest office that the Neapolitan had delegated to San Gennaro.
In the days of the miracle, the so-called “parenti” of San Gennaro – women of popular origins, coming mainly from the districts of Molo Piccolo – sat in the front row in the Church. The first among them, in order of time, had the surname “Ianuario”, and this was enough to persuade themselves and the others to be descendants of the Saint Gennaro.
Their, the “parenti”, could talk to the bust of San Gennaro, turning petitions and exhortations to him not to delay in making the miracle, tender sentences, and even some colorful and irreverent epithet, that Matilde Serao called “playful endearments”.
The procession, since it was established by Archbishop Giovanni Orsini in 1337, became and remained the same for many centuries, the most important opened religious ceremony of the city of Naples.
In the Saturday before the first Sunday in May, the statue of the patron was transported, with a long and busy liturgical procession to another church, chosen by rotation among the seven major basilicas. Then it came back in the Cathedral from where, the next day, started with another solemn procession, called “of the wreathed”, because those who participated had to bring a crown of roses on the head and take a flowering branch and a little cage with birds in the hands. This symbolism came from the world of ancient pagan celebrations of spring, reused for a Christian cult.
From 1389, date of the first miracle historically documented, it was decided to make following the bust with the theca with the cruets. In 1525 the relationship between San Gennaro and the city became even closer: the people’s elected asked and obtained that the bust and theca with blood, gone out from the Cathedral, were carried in procession not to a church, but to a square of the city.
So the direct and family relationship that the Neapolitan people was able to establish with his Patron Saint was consolidated.
From 1800, instead, the procession of May dropped the full contact with the people and the city districts, returned to have a church as a destination, one and forever: Santa Chiara.
And the “Compatroni”, from six who were at the beginnings, gradually increased in number, until 51.
51 silver statues for many saints, elevated to the rank of Patrons of Naples at the request of Churches, convents, monastic orders, private citizens.
A tenacious wake of popular religion still remains to keep alive the discourse on the ancient patron, between faith and religion. A wake that along an underground and impalpable path in the slow ride of a millennium and a half has placed San Gennaro in the middle of a magnificent phenomenon of popular religion and of a very ingrained cult, so that does not have equal in the world.