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 Malaga, Spain: All the saints and those Limbo babies, too

Gothic altar in the Chapel of Santa Barbara in the Cathedral of Nuestra Senora de le Encarnacion in Malaga

Layers upon layers of of saints climb the numerous gilded altars found in the Malaga Cathedral. Saints carved in wood by Pedro de Mena (1628-1688) grace the choir stalls. Today is all of their days. November 1. All Saints Day, and, for Catholics, a Holy Day of Obligation.

When I was young, the thrill of a night of trick-or-treating with its late night sugar high always was followed the next day by attendance at Mass. Unlike many holidays, it was particularly hard to comprehend why almost none of my friends had to go to church on November 1.

My godmother, Aunt Gen (Genevieve Louise Brennan Savage, 1907-2004), tried her best to explain things, but the nuns really never talked to us much about saints. Like Santa Barbara, whose own father carried out her martyrdom for her belief in the Holy Trinity. Although he was struck by lightening and consumed by fire on his way home after the act.

But the major impact for me was November 2, All Souls’ Day. You might not know this, but there are all of these bazillions of poor souls stuck in Purgatory – not so evil that they were condemned to hell but instead hanging around in an uncomfortable state trying to slip through the gates to heaven. Our prayers were supposed to free some of them and send them soaring above the clouds.

Even more concerning for me was Limbo. Limbo was where the little babies throughout the world who died unbaptized were supposed to go. Through no fault of their own, they were sentenced to remain suspended, constantly fluttering their wings in some mysterious twilight zone.

Those little poor souls were the ones for whom I would join my hands, palms sweating in those uncomfortable white gloves, squeeze my eyes tightly together and plead. God took a while to process my prayers from almost 60 years ago. In 2007, the Catholic Church finally liberated them all, burying the whole Limbo concept.

Sorry for the detour. Back to Malaga and its Cathedral. After all it’s a Holy Day of Obligation.

The foundation for the Cathedral of Nuestra Senora de le Encarnacion was laid in 1530 atop the Almohad Mosque. Taking more than a century to complete, the church is viewed as a chronicle of the transition of religious Gothic architecture into the Renaissance. The facades reflect extensive Baroque updating.

In addition to photos taken in the Cathedral, this post includes images from the Parroquia de los Santos Martires Ciriaco y Paula. The two were executed, with great difficulty requiring several attempts, for their Christian beliefs at the dawn of the 4th century. While their executioners set their remains ablaze, an unexpected torrential rain quenched the flames and faithful carted them off for more respectful last rites. It is believed the two somehow resurfaced to miraculously help expel the Moors about a millennium later, so they were proclaimed the patron saints of Malaga.

My prayers have lapsed, but I trust there are a multitude of people inclined to remember as many saints as possible today. Tomorrow, please pray doubly hard, just in case any little babies somehow remained stuck in Limbo.