The story of San Gennaro: life, death and miracles of the patron saint of Naples

by Francesco Forte

The story of Saint Gennaro is that of a very young bishop who died a martyr, sacrificing his life to defend his faith, then becoming what is surely one of the most iconic figures for the Neapolitan people, one of the most venerated and ancient of Christianity.

The long series of prodigies and miracles attributed to the saint begins from the tales of martyrdom, canonized only in 1586, among which certainly the most famous is that of liquefaction of the blood, which still today attracts many faithful and is eagerly awaited at every anniversary by the Neapolitans, as a sign of good omen. So here is the story of San Gennaro!

San Gennaro mostra le sue reliquie
San Gennaro shows his relics (Louis Finson, copy of Caravaggio's lost work)

How did San Gennaro die?

Not many know that Gennaro was probably not born in Naples, but in Benevento, a city of which I was in fact bishop, or came from North Africa. In fact, we know very little of his life, since the sources, although quite dated (the oldest are the Bolognese Acts they Vatican Acts of the VIII century) are several centuries after the death of the saint and therefore not completely reliable.
However, these agree on the date of birth, April 21 272, and on the date of martyrdom, which took place in 305 in Pozzuoli during the ferocious persecutions against Christians by the Emperor Diocletian.

Tradition has handed down several stories about the martyrdom of San Gennaro. Give it Bolognese Acts we know that Gennaro went to Pozzuoli together with the deacon Festus and the reader Desiderio, to meet the deacon of Miseno Sossio. He was imprisoned by Dragonzio, governor of Campania, and when Gennaro and the others went to the prisoner, trying to intercede for him, they suffered the same fate, and were then condemned to be torn to pieces by the bears. It was probably the people's sympathy for Christians that spared them this fate, to avoid an insurrection. Tradition has it instead that the fairs before Gennaro knelt down, following his blessing, a miracle portrayed in the painting by Artemisia Gentileschi.

Dagthe Vatican Acts other mythical stories about this episode have been handed down. It seems that Gennaro had been caught in Nola proselytizing since judge Timothy, who after arresting him reserved a series of tortures that did not seem to have any effect: then he decided to close it in a fiery furnace, but Gennaro came out of the same unharmed without even the garments being burned. It was then that Timoteo decided that Gennaro should have been torn to pieces by the beasts, also in this story miraculously tamed by the saint, and then destined for beheading. According to this version Timoteo would have lost his sight and would have been healed thanks to an invocation by Gennaro, leading five thousand men to be converted. Despite this, the judge wanted to proceed with the sentence.

The relics of the Saint were first brought to Naples, in the Catacombs of San Gennaro in Capodimonte, only to be stolen and taken to Benevento from Sicone I in 831, on the occasion of the siege of the city. They were then transported over three centuries later to theMontevergine Abbey, where they were lost.

Martirio San Gennaro nell'anfiteatro di Pozzuoli con gli Orsi, Artemisia Gentileschi
The martyrdom of San Gennaro in the amphitheater of Pozzuoli by Artemisia Gentileschi

The miracles of San Gennaro

The famous blood now preserved in the ampoules kept inside the Cathedral of Naples seems to have been collected by a woman named Eusebia, immediately after the beheading of the saint. The ampoules, together with the head of Gennaro, were the only relics left in Naples, and were publicly exhibited only in 1305. The first attestation of the miracle of liquefaction is dated 1389. In 1497 also the remains preserved in Montevergine were brought back to Naples, then stored in the Succorpo Chapel, crypt of the Cathedral, completed in 1506.

The relationship between the Neapolitans and San Gennaro has continued over the centuries, with the people who on several occasions invoked the saint to spare the city some misfortune. Already in 1527, when the city was suffering the spread of the plague and had just been besieged by the Angevins, the Neapolitans had in fact signed a sort of contract with the saint, even in the presence of a notary and his relics.

The most famous miraculous event linked to San Gennaro is however the one that took place, according to tradition, during the eruption of the Vesuvius of 1631, when following the procession of the insignia of the Saint the blood melted and the magma flow almost reached the city, suddenly stopped.

It was December 16th and since then, every year, i Neapolitans await the repetition of the miracle. This is expected on three dates, precisely December 16, September 19 during the feast of San Gennaro and the Saturday preceding the first Sunday in May, to commemorate the day when the saint's remains were taken to the catacombs of Capodimonte.

Eruzione del Vesuvio del 1631 di Micco Spadaro
The eruption of Vesuvius in 1631, Micco Spadaro

The legacy of San Gennaro

The devotion to San Gennaro has remained intact over the centuries and today in Naples there are various places where it is possible to experience the indissoluble bond between the saint and the city. Following the aforementioned contract with the saint, the splendid one was completed in 1646 Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro, perhaps the highest expression of Baroque art in Naples. Among other things, this belongs not to the curia but to the city, represented by the ancient institution of the Deputation of the Treasury, elected in 1601 and still exists today.

Inside it is now housed the Museum of the Treasure of San Gennaro, a priceless collection made up of the gifts offered by popes, kings and other illustrious personalities over the centuries to Gennaro. Among the most valuable pieces: the miter in which almost 4,000 precious stones are set and the necklace to which the precious stones donated by personalities such as Charles of Bourbon, Giuseppe Bonaparte and Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoy.

The greatest legacy of San Gennaro, however, is perhaps the immaterial one: the attachment of the Neapolitans to his figure characterizes a people that has always been linked to the divine as much as to the esoteric, which often mixes faith and superstition. The relationship between Naples and its patron is unique and indissoluble, rooted in popular culture for centuries, and the Neapolitans will certainly continue to count on his intervention for a long time to protect the city.


St. Januarius, Catholic Encyclopedia

Gennaro, saint, Encyclopedia Treccani

Saint Januarius, Encyclopaedia Britannica

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Margherita Pizza 9 July 2022 - 6:20

Beautiful and very interesting the story of s. Gennaro. As a Neapolitan I did not know her. And this is not contemplated. We as the first have the duty to know the history of the magnificent characters of beautiful Naples. Thank you very much from the suburbs. And congratulations for the disclosure of the history of Naples and its characters that make it even bigger in the world.

Emmanuel Thompson 19 September 2022 - 15:34

I am Italy America offers I grew up in Naples but I have always enchanted the history especially of my native city Naples xo aime 'when I was at the middle school at Cesare Pavese we studied a bit of the stories of Naples but I realized that there are many that I did not know ... and thanks to you I am discovering them Now very fascinating… and I will continue to follow you

Emmanuel Thompson 19 September 2022 - 15:35

I am ItaloAmericano I grew up in Naples but I have always enchanted the history especially of my native city Naples xo aime 'when I was at the middle school at Cesare Pavese we studied a bit of the stories of Naples but I realized that there are many that I did not know ... and thanks to you I am discovering them Now very fascinating… and I will continue to follow you

Federico Quagliuolo 20 September 2022 - 15:18

We are moved and honored by your story! Thank you very much with all my heart


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