The liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro, an event known as ‘il prodigio‘, happens three times a year in Naples, Italy … at least it should. This December on the last, and least high profile, of these occasions for 2016, San Gennaro’s blood did not liquefy.
There are many in Naples who will see this as an ominous sign for the city.
Each year, on the 16th of December, the day Vesuvius erupted in 1631, the saint’s blood is presented before the people in the cathedral to commemorate all the saint did to save the city from the worst of that eruption. The hope is that, with the prayers of the faithful, the saint’s blood will liquefy. This 16th it did not.
I learned the news in England. Even from that distance I could feel the saint’s shadow. Why? Why did it still matter? Because I’ve felt how much he matters, not to everyone in Naples, but certainly to some.
The first time I saw this was in May this year when a parade of saints processed through the centro storico of Naples from the cathedral to the grand church of Santa Chiara. San Gennaro was the star (his blood had liquified) and the mood was bright as the city had just won the legal right to carry on protecting him as it always had.
In September I tried to reach the cathedral in time for the big event in San Gennaro’s calendar – the day that commemorates his martyrdom – but timings meant I would arrive late. Too late perhaps? It was … but it wasn’t.
Via Duomo was busy with sweet stalls and visitors, and in the space outside the cathedral a crowd still waited to enter. The saint’s blood had liquified – the screen by the main entrance to the cathedral showed that – but people wanted to see for themselves.
It was a warm day, and the squash to enter moved slowly, marshalled by police who helped those inside to leave before they would let us go in. We waited, packed tight, for half an hour or so. The mix was middle-aged and mainly local – some work-worn, others in handmade suits. The police, almost lost amongst us, were calm and poker-faced.
It was a relief to enter the cathedral at last, and quiet tension gave way to clamour as the crowd pushed forward down the nave. At the far end, on a specially constructed platform, camera crews focussed their lenses, while police and priests patrolled the altar space between them and San Gennaro.
The crowd was anxious to get as close as possible to the saint. There was some confusion that required increasingly loud instruction until a priest moved to the microphone and began to pray, his voice a quiet, sing-song. Slowly, gradually the urgency ebbed.
San Gennaro, dwarfed by the pillars of the cathedral, remained aloof behind candles, every angle of his polished face reflected in their light.
I watched, I took the photographs I could, and then I left.
Outside the cathedral the crowd had shrunk to a gathering. The sun shone and bright balloons bounced against the blue – it was a good day for the city.
In all I have had three encounters with San Gennaro – the first was at a demonstration in his name; the second at the procession of saints in May; and the third in September – each encounter marked by emotion.
On the surface the idea of San Gennaro is difficult for the rationally-trained modern mind. Even in Naples this is true, but there’s no denying the urban memory that links the non-liquefaction of San Gennaro’s blood to past tragedies. These, connected either directly, or indirectly, to the city include earthquake, plague and war.
So – what does the non-liquefaction of the saint’s blood this December mean? Who knows? But the hope, and not just for those who feel this most deeply, is that the saint will stand by his city whatever the future holds.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2016