Treasure of San Gennaro offers insight into Naples’ love of patron saint
Stars and Stripes November 16, 2023
Three times a year, Naples citizens gather in anticipation of witnessing the city’s patron saint, San Gennaro, perform a miracle.
Hundreds gather outside the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in the city’s historic district to see if the martyr will liquefy his dried blood, a relic kept since his beheading in 305. If the blood runs, the city is blessed. If it doesn’t, catastrophe looms.
Amazingly, the hoped-for result occurs with few exceptions. You can learn about the ritual, the history of the saint and his connection to Naples at the Museum of the Treasure of San Gennaro.
Adjacent to the cathedral, the museum holds the Treasure of San Gennaro, a trove of relics and religious items made from bronze, silver and gold and decorated with diamonds, emeralds, rubies and other jewels.
You also can visit the Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro, where the ritual takes place, and view its Baroque architecture, frescoes and other artwork created by 17th-century craftsmen from Naples and throughout Italy.
San Gennaro, known in English as St. Januarius, is thought to protect Naples from fires, earthquakes, droughts, plagues, volcanic eruptions and other disasters. In addition, he is said to bestow help, healing and special favors.
In return, Neapolitans venerate the saint, who refused to renounce his faith and was tortured and executed on order of the Roman emperor Diocletian during the last persecution, according to the museum.
Visitors enter the museum to the right of the ticket office and head into the chapel, which was completed in 1646.
The altar includes a reliquary bust of San Gennaro that holds the bones of the saint’s skull, the audio guide states. The rest of his relics, including vials of blood gathered by an old woman after his death, are kept at the cathedral.
Of special note is the dome, which like those of Florence and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, has a double shell.
Its under arches were frescoed by renowned Bologna artist Domenico Zampieri, who also completed frescoes on the main altar and five of six paintings on copper that decorate the side altars.
He died unexpectedly before finishing his work, and the dome was completed by another artist whose fresco depicts paradise.
Backtracking through the chapel takes visitors to a flight of stairs leading down to the museum’s display of paintings, sculpture and religious items dedicated to San Gennaro.
Among the stunning pieces is a miter, a headdress worn by bishops, decorated with 3,026 diamonds, 198 emeralds and 168 rubies and weighing nearly 40 pounds.
Designed by Neapolitan goldsmith Matteo Treglia in 1713, it is used to decorate the head of San Gennaro’s bust. The website Religion Unplugged estimates its worth at $7 million.
There’s also a jeweled collar for the bust that features diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires, many of which were donated by kings, queens, popes and others over the centuries.
Several chalices and other religious items also are displayed, a small portion of the heavily guarded treasure.
Visiting the chapel and museum offers not only a better understanding of Naples’ love for San Gennaro but also preparation for taking in the fervor and spectacle of upcoming miracles.
The next celebration is scheduled for Dec. 16, the anniversary of the day he is credited with saving Naples from an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1631.
Museum of the Treasure of San Gennaro
Address: Via Duomo 149, Naples, Italy (closest metro stop is Piazza Cavour)
Cost: 12 euros (includes an audio guide); 8.50 euros for seniors 65 and older; free for children under 12. There also are reduced prices for families and groups, such as schools, and an option to include the Filangieri Museum for an additional 3 euros. Guided tours are offered for 20 euros.
Hours: 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily for the museum treasures; for the chapel, 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3-6 p.m. Monday and Saturday; 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2:30-6 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 4:30-6 p.m. Sunday .
Information: Phone: +39 081-294980; online: tesorosangennaro.it/en/home-en