Postcard from Naples, Italy: Virtual church for times restricted to armchair travel

On the left, Saint Sebastian, the protector against the plague, Monumental Complex Donnaregina

During these days when many a traveler unwittingly has brought back coronavirus as an unwelcome souvenir, we remain grounded and semi-cloistered at home in San Antonio. Spring plans canceled.

With churches locking their doors to try to keep their parishioners safely cocooned in their houses, Sunday seems a good time to share some snapshots from churches taken during a fall trip to Naples.

Am including an assortment of saints to serve most any request. Perhaps Saint Sebastian, the protector against the plague, should be a logical choice? Depictions of saints painfully attaining martyrdom are included to remind us that this confinement is not so bad, particularly as we have internet to let us connect with one another and the world.

And am throwing in the body of one saint-in-waiting, the Venerable Giacomo Torno, lying in an incorrupt state since his death in 1609 as a reminder most aspects of Roman Catholicism remain mysterious and incomprehensible to me, an outsider admiring the art and architecture while always avoiding mass.

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 Cordoba, Spain: A city filled with churches

When Ferdinand III (1199-1252), King of Castile, conquered Cordoba in 1236, he launched a flurry of construction projects to formalize the city’s conversion to Catholicism. The mosques destroyed in the process provided convenient foundations and served as quarries for building numerous of these. Through the centuries, the original medieval structures received Renaissance alterations topped by a Baroque overlay.

Shells left by pilgrims who have traveled the Camino de Santiago dangle from the statue of Santiago, or Saint James the Greater, in the temple built atop a mosque and dedicated to the saint. Following the death of Jesus, James proselytized throughout the Iberian peninsula before returning to preach in Samaria and Judea.

In the year 44, King Herod Agrippa I (11 BC-44 AD) ordered him beheaded, making James the first of the 12 apostles to be martyred. According to Acts 12:20-23, Herod himself perished later that same year because: “he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.” Legends associated with Santiago as the patron saint of Spain claim he, with neck intact, miraculously appeared armed atop a horse to lead outnumbered Christians to victory in a battle with the Moors – 800 years following his death.

And, continuing on a saintly topic, a large silver vessel enshrined in the Basilica of San Pedro contains a jumbled assortment of skulls and bones purported to belong to the Martyrs of Cordoba. According to accounts recorded by San Eulogio, these 48 Christians were beheaded by their Muslim rulers between 851-859 for their violations of Islamic law, mainly blasphemy and apostasy, or renunciation of the Islamic faith.

Eulogio’s writings, The Memorials of the Saints, ended abruptly upon the priest’s own execution in 859.