The tomb of San Gennaro: the miraculous journey of the relics

by Francesco Forte

Where is the tomb of Saint Gennaro? The relics of the patron saint of Naples are certainly among the most famous and venerated in the world, thanks to the famous miracle of the dissolution of blood: the ampoules that contain it are kept at the Naples Cathedral, where every year on three occasions the faithful gather waiting for the miracle to occur, which according to the Neapolitans is a sign of good omen.

The veneration for Gennaro now lasts almost two millennia, and begins with his martyrdom that according to the sources it happened to Pozzuoli. It seems that the Saint has never been in Naples in his life, he was in fact bishop of Benevento and according to some he was born in North Africa. After the beheading, Gennaro's body was buried in the Agro Marciano: So how did the ampoules containing his blood arrive in Naples and where is the tomb of San Gennaro currently located? Find out with us!

San Gennaro, Francesco Solimena
San Gennaro, by Francesco Solimena

The Succorpo Chapel in the Naples Cathedral

Inside the Naples Cathedral you can visit the Succorpo Chapel, also known as Carafa or San Gennaro chapel: this was in fact built at the behest of the cardinal Oliviero Carafa so that the bones of the saint were kept there, who returned to Naples in 1497, thanks to the cardinal's commitment. This is therefore today the tomb of San Gennaro, where, in an urn placed under an altar, his bones are kept.

Built in style Renaissance, the rectangular chapel is divided into three naves by columns, the walls are covered with marble and the ceiling is divided into 18 coffers decorated with high reliefs depicted saints. In the central nave we find the statue depicting Oliviero Carafa in prayer, he himself was buried inside the chapel. On the opposite side there is instead the apse, where we find the altar under which it is possible to see the urn containing the sacred remains of San Gennaro.
The design of the crypt has long been attributed to Tommaso and Gian Tommaso Malvino, more recently the hypothesis has been advanced that it is the work of Bramante.

As mentioned, the bones of San Gennaro returned to Naples when the chapel was built, they were in fact for centuries far from the city where the cult of the Saint remained very strong and where the head and blood of the martyr were present. Where then were the remains of San Gennaro found?

Altare con urna, tomba di San Gennaro, Cappella del Succorpo del Duomo di Napoli
The urn containing the remains of San Gennaro, Succorpo Chapel of the Naples Cathedral

The Sanctuary of Montevergine and the stolen bones of San Gennaro

In the'831, Sicone I besieged the city of Naples, stealing the bones of San Gennaro to bring them back to what was once his episcopal see, that is Benevento. The remains of the Saint remained in the cathedral which then housed the tomb of San Gennaro for over three centuries, when in 1154 Benevento was no longer considered safe: Giuglielmo I of Sicily he therefore decided to have the remains of San Gennaro moved to the Sanctuary of Montevergine, near Avellino.

In Montevergine the devotion of the faithful was mostly directed towards San Guglielmo and towards the Madonna of Montevergine, also called Mother Schiavona. This meant that over time the knowledge of where the bones of San Gennaro were, which they remained there forgotten until 1480, when they were found placed under the main altar of the church. Thanks to the commitment of the Carafa family, they finally returned to Naples, despite the opposition of the monks of Montevergine. However, there remained a question to be answered, namely which was originally the tomb of San Gennaro in Naples.

The "cubiculum" in the Catacombs of Capodimonte

From a step of the Chronicon of the bishops of Naples and from a seventh-century homily, we know that the tomb of San Gennaro in Naples was located in a "cubiculum"Within the catacombs of Capodimonte . According to Chronicon, John I., bishop of Naples, was buried in 432 in the same oratory where he himself had laid down the remains of the martyr. The same source reports the works desired by the bishop Athanasius I, in particular the frescoes, and the position of a oratoryipso cubicolo positam", or placed above the cubicle. This was identified in what was later called "Basilica of the Bishops“, Dedicated to the first 14 bishops of Naples, an area located on the upper level of the catacombs and from which today it is possible to see the tomb of San Gennaro.

Athanasius also built the Basilica of San Gennaro outside the walls, with the intent to protect the catacombs. However this was used as a hospital in the fifteenth century by the will of Cardinal Carafa and from the seventeenth century it became, following the plague, first a lazaret and then a hospice for the poor. The catacombs were then used as an ossuary and over time they ended up pouring into the state of complete abandonment. Thus, all trace of the tomb of San Gennaro was completely lost.

Prima immagine di San Gennaro, affresco nelle catacombe di Capodimonte
Fresco in the Catacombs of Naples, the oldest image of San Gennaro

The fortuitous discovery of the Tomb of San Gennaro

During the excavations started in 1969 who brought to light the crypt of the Bishops, was the fortuitous collapse of a wall, due to the accumulation of materials during the works, a unearth the tomb of San Gennaro, which abandoned had been filled with various materials over the centuries. The study of the texts, the position of the cubicle, the presence of the frescoes commissioned by Atanasio and the signs of the burglary on the wall of the same have allowed us after more than 1,000 years to find and recognize the tomb of San Gennaro.

The cubicle where San Gennaro was buried is located at lower level of the catacombs, the oldest one, and it seems that it was the presence of the remains of the patron saint of Naples that determined the subsequent expansion of the structure of the same with the construction of the upper level. FromHomelia of the Miraculis sancti Ianuarii, a hagiographic text dating back to around the year 1000, we deduce that the cubicle was accessible before the construction of the Basilica dei Vescovo: the same tells us in fact some miracles attributed to the saint, such as the healing of Gregorio da Capua who entered the Saint's cubicle at the end of his life and then came out healed.

La tomba di San Gennaro: il miracoloso viaggio delle reliquie
The cubicle that housed the tomb of San Gennaro in the catacombs of Capodimonte


At the translation of the Saint's relics from Agro Marciano to Naples a fundamental moment in the history of San Gennaro is also linked. According to tradition along the way John I met Eusebia on the Vomero hill, considered the nanny of the martyr, who he had kept Gennaro's blood in two ampoules, picking it up a few moments after the martyrdom. That was when it happened for the first time the miracle: in the presence of the saint's head the blood dissolved for the first time. Even today, every year the miracle is expected to occur on the Saturday before the first Sunday in May, precisely to commemorate the first translation of the remains of San Gennaro.

Sources and references

St. Januarius, Catholic Encyclopedia
Catacombs of San Gennaro, catacombedinapoli.it
Sanctuary of Montevergine, santuariodimontevergine.it
CARAFA, Oliviero in “Biographical Dictionary”, treccani.it

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