The Secret of Liquefying Blood

by Margaret Bhatty

The patron saint of. the city of Naples is San Gennaro. His special function is to preserve the Neopolitans from the fate met by the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD. That was when Vesuvius erupted. Possibly the most famous volcano in the world, Vesuvius stands 10 miles inland from the city. Despite its menacing presence the area has been heavily populated for over 2,000 years because of the Bay of Naples and its access by sea trade in the Mediterranean. Clouds of steam, dust and ash swathe its crest. In 1631 a particularly severe eruption killed above 18,000 people. It is this event which the people of Naples commemorate through their patron saint. However, eruptions in this century have also been as spectacular if not as destructive. In 1906, after a week of sinister silence, Vesuvius exploded, sending red hot rocks and ash a mile high. Explosions burst its sides and lava flowed out, covering villages and killing people. From sea the mountain appears red like a huge glowing pyramid at night. The volcano has again become active in the past two years, possibly preparing for another blowout. But the people of Naples remain unshaken in their belief that San Gennaro will preserve them. Despite our technology, humans have yet to gain control of those most destructive aspects of Nature which cause earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tidal wives, floods and lightning. Primitive man believed the gods presiding over these forces could be placated with sacrifice. Modern man resorts to religion and propitiatory rites. Among the more startling is the veneration of San Gennaro because of a bizarre "miracle" through which he reveals his goodwill to his devotees. Surprisingly little is known about San Gennaro, otherwise Saint Januarius. He was Bishop of Benevento, 65 kms inland from Naples, and he suffered martyrdom during the last severe persecution of the Christians under the Roman emperor, Diocletian, in 305 AD. A faithful woman, Eusebia, present when he was beheaded caught his blood in a vessel. It was passed on to her heirs as a holy relic for over 1,000 years without putrefying. Today this blood is kept in the cathedral of Naples in an oval ampoule, apparently sealed and of very old glass, 7 cms across The ampoule is embedded in a reliquary with a silver stem for carrying it. The blood lies at the bottom as a dark rusted powder. But on three occasions in a year, when the Saint responds to the people's prayers, it liquefies and turns a bright red in color, splashing about in the ampoule as the reliquary is borne through the crowd of people who reach out to touch it. This "miracle" has been witnessed by hundreds crammed into the square in front of the cathedral. It has now been seen by millions more on television. The first liquefaction occurs in May. This was the time the mortal remains of the Saint were brought to Naples early in the 5th century AD. and placed in the catacombs named after him. For a week the blood liquefies in the morning and then solidifies. The earliest record of this "miracle" is from an unknown diarist who wrote on August 17, 1389 that the "blood of the blessed Januarius which is in the ampoule was liquefied this day as if it had freshly issued from his body." This was a reference to the second exposition which is now held in September to mark the martyrdom of the Saint. The "miracle" occurs again in the middle of December, this time commemorating the devastating eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 1631. As long as the blood liquefies the Neapolitans believe their city is safe from the disaster that overtook Pompeii. Countless other beliefs also center on the blood. Its liquefaction presages a period of good luck, and its refusal to do so a period of misfortune. In May 1976, when it refused to liquefy a severe earthquake struck northeast Italy killing hundreds. Perhaps readers will recall a film shown on Doordarshan one Sunday morning made by the National Geographic Magazine on the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It also showed the exposition of the reliquary to a huge congregation. Those fortunate enough to be close to it reached out to touch or kiss it. The reliquary rocked and swayed making the "blood" splash about in the ampoule. Writer Gordon Gaskill, in an article "The Blood of San Gennaro: Myth or Miracle?" has given a first hand account of the event. He and his Italian wife were given special seats by the Archbishop, Corrado Cardinal Ursi. Resplendent in robes of scarlet, white and gold, the archbishop held the reliquary by its stem. Particular significance is placed on the actual time the blood takes to liquefy. Gaskill wrote: "Now we stand close to the reliquary the Cardinal is holding as he begins praying: 'San Gennaro....San Gennaro....' He tilts it gently from side to side and looks at it. The contents seem very dark, almost black and immovable. 10.13. His prayer rises higher, his voice more imploring. 10.14. Again he tilts the reliquary....and suddenly his face breaks into a smile." A duke now steps forward and examines the ampoule, kisses it in veneration and then signals the "miracle" to the waiting crowd by waving a white handkerchief. People cheer and clap, some burst into tears as the cathedral bells ring out, fireworks are set off, and the cathedral organ booms. Naples is once more assured of the protection of the saint from Vesuvius. Gaskill was allowed to look closely at the ampoule, held ten centimeters from his eyes. "Why it happens, how it happens, I do not know. But within a few moments that substance had changed to what is clearly a liquid with the same consistency and color as blood." When the writer visited Rome he questioned the Vatican department responsible for saints and their veneration. Does the Catholic church believe in the "miracle"? he asked. One monsignor replied: "By dogma, a Catholic must believe only in the miracles the Bible relates. As for the others, like that of San Gennaro, he can believe what he likes." But so obsessive is the Neapolitan belief in the saint that thieves solicit his help before setting out on a mission. He is asked to get good husbands for daughters, cure aches and pains, find work for the unemployed, and even turn up a winning lottery ticket. If he fails he is castigated severely in no uncertain terms Skeptical Catholics and scientists have long pondered on the "miracle" of the Saint's liquefying blood. Who was the clever alchemist who thought it all up? Two factors are of significance in the process: the heat factor from handling, kissing, and the many candles lit in the cathedral; and the gentle shaking of the reliquary from side to side. On a number of occasions, the "miracle" has even taken place when workmen were handling it for repairs. The possibility of conscious cheating is proved by an event in 1799 when a French army, led by Championnet, occupied Naples. The invader was told that the blood would not liquefy at the usual exposition because the Saint was angered over the occupation. The man went to the Cathedral on the first day and the "miracle" failed to occur. The surging crowd grew ugly and restive. Where upon the republican general sent one of his men to the archbishop: "Tell him that if the blood is not boiling within five minutes I will have Naples bombarded." The "miracle" took place in less than five minutes! The British journal Nature published an article in October, 1991, regarding the secret of the liquefying blood. Two Italian chemists claimed they could replicate the stunt using the thixotropic property of some substances to liquefy when stirred or vibrated, and thereafter to revert to a gel once again. They had used chemicals available in the 14th century to work the "miracle" in their laboratory. Making a solution of ferric chloride, found on active volcanoes like Vesuvius, they added chalk and allowed time for a little evaporation. By adding common salt they obtained a dark, brownish fluid that gelled in an hour. Liquefaction of this substance was achieved by gentle shaking, the way the reliquary is tilted from side to side. However, this thesis is rejected by Henri Broch, Biophysics Laboratory, University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis. He claims the "miracle" has been exposed in earlier times. Professor G. Albini of the University of Naples replicated the "miracle" in 1890. He used powdered chocolate, water, sugar, casein, lactoserum and cooking salt. Shaken up, these ingredients liquefy to make what could be taken for blood. Albini's experiment places importance on the movement of the reliquary. But Broch says there are instances when the blood has liquefied without any shaking up. It has also resolidified while still being carried in procession and being jolted by devotees touching it. Broch himself has "created" the miracle using ingredients listed in a French encyclopedia published in 1866-76. However, he has found out the secret behind the miracle as far back as 1921 when he discussed Biblical miracles in an issue of Nature magazine. A medical friend, Frederic Newton Williams, then told of his personal experience during a visit to Naples, some years earlier. While there, Williams called on the American pharmacist working in the municipal hospital. A young priest from the Cathedral di San Gennaro came in and asked for the usual mixture for the feast which was to be held the next day, the first Saturday in May. "With a smile and a few words of banter, the pharmacist prepared a mixture of ox bile and crystals of Glauber's salt (sulfate of soda)." This was handed to the messenger to take back to the cathedral sacristy. The next day Williams and the American pharmacist sat in a cafe and watched the reliquary being carried in solemn procession. He wrote: "Thanks to my genial companion, the 'miracle' was ;quite successful. He also explained that at the second celebration, which takes place on the 16th December in the Cathedral only (without the procession), the liquefaction is slower on account of the cooler weather." Scientists both Catholic and non-Catholic, would be happy to analyze the contents of the glass ampoule. But the Neapolitans will not hear of such blasphemy. When Gordon Gaskill asked the monsignor in the Vatican what he thought of the idea, he replied with a shrug: "For the Catholic religion, the results would make no difference whatsoever. But I should not like to be in Cardinal Ursi's shoes if, for the sake of scientific tests, he allowed any harm to come to that ampoule." To that we might append Broch's own comment: "It seems that in all ages, while credulity keeps its mouth open, there will ever be miracle mongers keen to gratify that appetite."

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Last update: November 21 1996