Words by Michelle Fabio

The September version of the twice-yearly celebration of the patron saint of Naples, San Gennaro, in nearly upon us. The main event occurs on 19 September, the feast day of San Gennaro, when the faithful gather in the Cathedral of Naples to witness the liquefaction of the saint’s blood.
San Gennaro was the Bishop of Benevento when he was beheaded during Diocletian’s persecution of Christians in 305 A.D. Some of the martyr’s blood was collected by a woman, and it was taken to Naples along with San Gennaro’s skeleton. Just eight years later, the first miracle of the liquefaction of San Gennaro’s blood, which is normally a solid mass, was recorded. The saint is associated with protecting the city from eruptions of Mount Vesuvius as well as other tragedies.

Now the miracle happens as many as 18 times a year, but the first Saturday in May and 19 September are particularly special days for Neapolitans. Following a boisterous procession through the streets of Spaccanapoli, the historical centre of Naples, the silver bust of San Gennaro is placed next to the altar in the Cathedral. The ampoule containing the saint’s blood is shown to those in attendance—religious and political officials as well as hundreds of spectators.

Then, after anywhere from moments to more than an hour of intense prayer by the “zie” (aunts) of San Gennaro, women seated in the front row of the church, the blood begins bubbling and changes into a liquid.

The church bells ring wildly, the faithful cheer and gather to kiss the ampoule, and Naples is believed to be safe for awhile at least—if the blood fails to liquefy, it is seen as a bad omen for the city. In fact, before the 1980 earthquake that left 2000 dead, the miracle of San Gennaro’s blood had failed to occur.

Here are some looks inside the Cathedral during the unique ritual as well as a short documentary (in English) on the Miracle of San Gennaro:

The Feast of San Gennaro is also widely celebrated in Italian communities outside of Italy; one of the largest is in Little Italy in New York City.