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 Naples, Italy: Skulls of lost souls up for adoption

Quando finisce la partita il re ed il pedone finiscono nella stessa scatola.

The English translation would be: When you finish the game, the king and pawn end up in the same box. In other words: we all meet the same end.

“Best Italian Proverbs,” Rome, Food, Travel

There appears no shortage of ancient Catholic churches in Naples. Yet even by the 16th century, their walls, floors and underground catacombs were oversubscribed by the faithful demanding interment inside. Something needed to give.

Clever undertakers found a solution. They began digging up older remains, the ones of souls long forgotten, to free up space for the newcomers. The ancient bones were carted away discreetly to shallow graves in an enormous system of caves – natural caverns extended by ancient Greek and Roman tunnels and quarries for building materials for the city.

Then came the plague of 1656, decimating the population. The spiraling number of corpses led to their mass disposal atop the existing shallow graves in the caves.

The anonymous pile might have been forgotten were it not for an end-of-the-century flood washing all the bones out and depositing them helter-skelter on the streets below. The bones were returned to the cave, which then was deemed a more official location for disposing of deceased paupers.

An 1837 cholera epidemic swelled the number of residents unceremoniously dumped together in disorderly fashion. The charnel house became known as the Cemetery of the Fountains – Cimitero delle Fontanelle.

In 1872, a priest took pity upon all of the remains of the departed, many tossed inside without receiving their last rites. He had them sorted and arranged in a more orderly fashion, which attracted renewed interest among compassionate Catholics.

A cult arose, as people began to lovingly adopt skulls – capuchelle – of the abandoned souls – pezzentelle – in return for protection. They assigned the unknown names that appeared to them in dreams. They cleaned them, brought them small tokens of their affection, and kept them company.

Then, in 1969, the Archbishop of Naples decreed the practice fetishism and closed the entire ossuary to visitors. The deprivation of visitation rights to ancient adopted kin proved unpopular.

The cemetery was restored in early 2000 but was only unlocked for visitation a couple of times a year. Following protests including an overnight occupation, the cavernous space was reopened on a daily basis in 2010.

Only spotted one caregiver inside. She dashed down the entire length, her boyfriend lagging a ways behind. She stopped mid-right in the last chapel. Obviously, she only had eyes for but one skull amongst the abundance. She stooped to present something to her capuchelle, murmured a word or two, and then dashed back out as quickly as she entered. Her fidanzato rushed to keep up.

As you wander in the dimly lit chambers with bare rock walls and soaring ceilings, the space feels as hallowed as that of any ornately gilded church nave. The named capuchelle do indeed began to assume personalities of a sort, indicating that no two skulls are alike. They all are individuals; each with a story.

As in Mexican cemeteries on the first days of November, by the time you leave, keeping company with the dead no longer appears as bizarre. Eerie, yet somehow soothing.

And there are 30,000, 40,000, maybe even 50,000 more skulls stacked up, waiting for adoption.

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.