Postcard from Naples, Italy: The most bejeweled saint

164 rubies, 198 emeralds and 3,326 diamonds adorn the gold mitre created by Matteo Traglia in 1713 for a bust of San Gennaro

Gennaro, or Januarius, ascended through the ranks of early Christians to become Bishop of Naples. Unfortunately for him, this was during the time period when Emperor Diocletian was at his most testy. In the year 305, the bishop and some of his fellow practitioners were sentenced to be thrown to the bears awaiting them in an amphitheater. Legend claims the bears refused the proffered meal, so the emperor was forced to change their sentence to beheading, which proved more successful in achieving their martyrdom.

Later, San Gennaro’s remains were moved to catacombs in Naples that bear his name. But his remains no longer are found there. At some point, his body went elsewhere while his head remained in Naples. Finally in 1497 a cardinal in Naples, where Gennaro is the city’s primary patron saint, managed to regain the body and reunite them in a handsome crypt below the cathedral, which bears the name of San Gennaro as well.

Back in 305, one of San Gennaro’s followers salvaged two ampules of his blood after his beheading. Their whereabouts for the next thousand years or so are uncertain, but they surfaced and were secured in the church. Not surprisingly, the blood had dried up by then. But soon after, its caretakers observed it spontaneously liquifying.

Creating much excitement among the faithful, the liquification supposedly occurs to this day three times a year – on the Feast Day of San Gennaro, September 19; on December 26, the celebration of his patronage of Naples; and finally in May to mark the reunification of his body parts. Sometimes one of the ampules liquifies when visited by popes. This miracle failed to occur when Pope Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI arrived at San Gennaro, but supposedly an ampule half-liquified for Pope Francis, demonstrating San Gennaro’s strong support for his reign.

Survivors from several 16th-century disasters wanted to show their gratitude to the city’s patron saint and decided to erect a chapel adjacent to the cathedral to honor him. Citizens stepped forward to donate huge numbers of gemstones to commission appropriate tributes. One is a stunning necklace created by Michele Data in 1679; another is the jewel-encrusted mitre at the top of this post.

Additional treasures were accumulated to add to San Gennaro’s treasures. Major silver statues of saints among them.

The unusual aspect of the Treasures of San Gennaro is ownership. They belong to the citizens of Naples themselves, not the Catholic Church. They escaped confiscation by the state of Italy when it was unified. Periodically rumors spring forth the Vatican is trying to get control of them, sparking major protests in Naples, one as recent as 2016.

Sorry, so distracted by the shimmering jewels that have neglected to make much mention of the Cathedral of Naples, Cattedrale di San Gennaro, itself. The initial construction of the cathedral was commissioned by King Charles I (see earlier post) but was not completed until the 14th century. Mosaics from the 4th century are found in an adjacent baptistry predating the cathedral.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Rome’s first church and papal palace

With rumors spreading that the great fire that burned for six days in Rome in the year 64 was ignited to clear away existing structures for construction of his grand palace on the Palatine Hill, Emperor Nero (37-68) found a scapegoat. Christians must have started the fire. So Christians were hunted down and persecuted, with the gruesome brutality one might expect from an emperor who deemed even the lives of his mother and a wife or two disposable.

For the sake of explaining the featured photo of the top of the ciborium erected over the papal altar in the Archbasilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, we will mention only two of the emperor’s victims. Under the orders of the emperor, Saint Peter (30-64 or so) was crucified upside down, the position the martyr requested to demonstrate his humble position in relation to Jesus. Most of the remains of Saint Peter are believed to rest under the Basilica bearing his name. As a Roman citizen, Saint Paul the Apostle (5-64 or so) was afforded a “more humane” death sentence, beheading. Legend has it that his head bounced high three times after its separation from his body, with fountains of water spraying up for the ground at each bounce. His body was buried outside the walls, under what is named, appropriately, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. The head might have been retrieved later from amongst a pit of severed heads.

According to tradition, the golden reliquaries encasing the heads of Saints Peter and Paul peer out from that deep-blue golden cage at the top of the ciborium. There is no question that two skulls reside there side by side on high, but some wonder whether they are the actual ones that once rested on the shoulders of Peter and Paul. But that is just being nitpicky. The importance of these relics to the church is illustrated by the fact that only the Pope is permitted to say mass from this altar.

This Gothic-style feature was not added inside Saint John Lateran until the 14th century, the origins of the archbasilica, dedicated to both Saint John the Baptist (BC-28 or so) and Saint John the Evangelist (15-100), are much earlier. Much of the site belonged at one time to the Lateranus family, but a family member was accused of conspiracy by Nero, who used that as an excuse to confiscate the property. Later, Emperor Constantine I (272-337) donated it to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. In 318, the site became the home of the first church built in Rome and the papal home under Pope Silvester I (?-335).

While the Baptistry dates from the early years, an earthquake in 896 destroyed much of the church. Strangely, this destruction coincided with the one-year reign of Pope Stephen VI. The pope was not fond of his predecessor, Pope Formosus (816-896). Not content to leave final judgment in the hands of Saint Peter at the gates of heaven, Pope Stephen VI had the body of Pope Formosus exhumed and propped up in the Lateran Palace. The corpse was put on trial on numerous charges of prior papal intrigue. Unable to mount much of a defense, Pope Formosus was deemed guilty. His papal robes were removed and replaced with those of a common man, and, before he was reburied, his three “blessing fingers” were chopped off and thrown into the Tiber.

The church was rebuilt after the earthquake, but a series of fires resulted in it having to be resurrected from ashes several times in the 1300s. The fires spared the 13th-century cloisters.

When the papacy returned from Avignon in 1377, the church again was restored but the papal residence was moved to Santa Maria in Trastevere. Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) hired architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) for work on the church, and Pope Innocent X (1574-1655) hired Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) for more interior remodeling. Pope Clement XII (1652-1740) then commissioned Allessandro Galilei (1691-1737) to add the unusual façade fronting an enormous plaza anchored by a 455-ton obelisk.

The ancient obelisk, commissioned by Pharaoh Thutmose III (1481-1425 B.C.) for Thebes, attracted the interest of Emperor Constantine I. He ordered it shipped to Constantinople, but it was waylaid in Rome and erected in the Circus Maximus in 357 instead. Toppled and buried at some point, it was rediscovered, excavated and moved to the plaza by Sixtus V in 1588.