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William Hamblin & Daniel Peterson: An important early Italian Christian who survived a fiery furnace

Naples is not generally known as a major center of early Christianity, but Christians are known to have lived there from the earliest times. On his journey to Rome, for instance, Paul stayed with “some brothers and sisters” — meaning with fellow Christians — at Puteoli, modern Pozzuoli, which is, today, a suburb of Naples. Over the centuries, Christianity spread slowly among the people of Naples just as it did more famously in Rome.

“Saint Januarius Emerges unscathed from the Furnace” is by J. de Ribera, 1643, Cathedral of San Gennaro, Naples.
“Saint Januarius Emerges unscathed from the Furnace” is by J. de Ribera, 1643, Cathedral of San Gennaro, Naples.
William J. Hamblin

The most important early Christian in Naples was San Gennaro (in Latin, St. Januarius), Bishop of Benevento in the late third century. During the persecutions of the Roman emperor Diocletian in 305, Gennaro was arrested and sentenced to death. According to later legends, the Romans threw him into a fiery furnace from which he emerged unscathed (cf. Daniel 3:8-30). The Romans therefore beheaded him; he was buried in the Catacombs of San Gennaro, which can still be visited in Naples today.

The catacombs of San Gennaro contain important examples of early fourth-century Christian art, such as one of the earliest depictions of Adam and Eve, with the Tree of Knowledge faintly visible between them. Another fresco in a niche depicts the revelation of the Cross of Jesus from behind a veil.

Catacombs of San Gennaro, Naples.
Catacombs of San Gennaro, Naples.
William J. Hamblin

Above the cross is the Greek abbreviation IC XC for “Iesous Christos,” or “Jesus Christ.” Beneath it is the Greek word “NIKA,” meaning “victory.” This may be a reference to 1 Corinthians 15:54-55 (“So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”).

Alternatively, it may perhaps be an allusion to Constantine’s vision of the Cross before his victory at the pivotal Battle of Milvian Bridge.

Miracles began to be attributed to San Gennaro by the early fifth century. His bones and relics were taken from the catacombs and reinterred in several churches in the vicinity of Naples, eventually being permanently deposited in 1497 in the magnificent Cathedral of San Gennaro in Naples.

Clay vessel containing the bones of San Gennaro, which are visible at the opening, crypt of Cathedral of San Gennaro, Naples.
Clay vessel containing the bones of San Gennaro, which are visible at the opening, crypt of Cathedral of San Gennaro, Naples.
William J. Hamblin

While his bones were placed in a clay urn under an altar in the crypt of the cathedral, his head resides in a 14th-century reliquary bust that is encrusted with gold and gems. This bust is regularly taken on processions through Naples on holy days. The chapel of San Gennaro in the cathedral was remodeled in the Baroque period as a fitting shrine for the veneration of the most important saint of Naples.

The dome of the chapel was painted by Domenichino in the 1630s to depict the ascent of San Gennaro into heaven. Interestingly, the image of an embodied God the Father is featured in the center of the dome .

But by far the most important relic of San Gennaro is his blood, said to have been collected at his execution in 305 by a woman named Eusebia. The blood was preserved for centuries until 1389. In that year, the dried blood was said to have miraculously liquified during the veneration of the saint.

Ascent of San Gennaro to heaven; dome of the Chapel of San Gennaro, by Domenichino, 1630s.
Ascent of San Gennaro to heaven; dome of the Chapel of San Gennaro, by Domenichino, 1630s.
William J. Hamblin

Since then, three times a year (especially on Sept. 19), faithful Neapolitans gather to witness the miracle of the liquefaction of the holy blood, believed to be a sign of the Saint’s enduring presence and and of his love for Naples. The blood is contained in two small cylindrical glass ampoules kept in a bank vault, and these are only displayed to the faithful in processions on holy days. During the ritual, the archbishop holds the ampoule up to show that it is dried. Afterward, he places it on the high altar and then raises it again — filled with liquified blood.

During the procession of the relics of San Gennaro in Naples on Dec. 16, 1631, the famous Mount Vesuvius erupted nearby, ultimately killing some 4,000 people. But Naples itself was spared destruction, a mercy that was attributed to the miraculous intervention of the Neapolitans’ patron saint, Gennaro.

Descendants of Neapolitan immigrants to the United States still remember their saintly patron. The “Church of the Most Precious Blood” in New York’s Little Italy is the focus of veneration for the martyred ancient bishop in the New World.

The statue of the saint that is located in the church in New York is taken out in procession on Gennaro’s feast day of Sept. 19, just as the Neapolitans have been doing back in their native city for centuries. The nearly century-old Feast of San Gennaro in New York City (Sept. 12-22) is said to be the largest Italian festival outside Italy.

Note: Dedicated to the memory of Arnold H. Green (1940-2019), a history professor at Brigham Young University who specialized in modern Middle Eastern history.

Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.