Prophecies of doom! San Gennaro’s blood fails to liquify!

St. Januarius, or San Gennaro, as he’s known in Italian, is the patron saint of Naples, reputed to have died in 325 A.D. He’s celebrated with big festivals in Italy and New York, and you may remember that it was during this festival that Don Corleone (in the younger incarnation played by Robert de Niro in The Godfather: Part 2) assassinated the boss Don Fanucci, with the gunshots masked by the firecrackers in the streets.

But there’s a miracle involving San Gennaro, for a vial of what is reputed to be his blood (about 60 ml) is kept in a glass vessel inside a reliquary at the Naples Cathedral, where three times a year it’s exhibited by the priests. The “miracle” occurring when the solid “blood” liquifies and then becomes solid again. Although the Church won’t officially sanction this as a genuine miracle, they don’t impugn it, either, and won’t permit any tests on the blood except crude spectroscopy through the glass, which has shown some dubious indications of hemoglobin.

Here’s the “blood” liquifying in 2011; at about 3:04 the blood is certified to have liquified, somebody waves a handkerchief, and the crowd goes wild. It’s taken as a good omen (in years in which the stuff hasn’t liqufied, bad things have happened), and assures believers that God is in his Heaven.

Wikipedia describes the ritual:

For most of the time, the ampoules are kept in a bank vault, whose keys are held by a commission of local notables, including the Mayor of Naples; while the bones are kept in a crypt under the main altar of Naples Cathedral. On feast days, all these relics are taken in procession from the cathedral to the Monastery of Santa Chiara, where the archbishop holds the reliquary up and tilts it to show that the contents are solid, and places it on the high altar next to the saint’s other relics. After intense prayers by the faithful, including the so-called “relatives of Saint Januarius” (parenti di San Gennaro), the content of the larger vial typically liquefies. The archbishop then holds up the vial and tilts it again to demonstrate that liquefaction has taken place. The announcement of the liquefaction is greeted with a 21-gun salute at the 13th-century Castel Nuovo. The ampoules remain exposed on the altar for eight days, while the priests move or turn them periodically to show that the contents remain liquid.

The liquefaction sometimes takes place almost immediately, but can take hours or even days. Records kept at the Duomo tell that on rare occasions the contents fail to liquefy, are found already liquefied when the ampoules are taken from the safe, or liquefy outside the usual dates.

There are several naturalistic explanations for this miracle (first described in 1389) that you can read about here and here—explanations hindered by the Church’s refusal to permit invasive sampling (and really, what do they have to gain from that?)  The most viable seems to be that the “blood” is a thixotropic gel, that liquifies when agitated. At CICAP, authors F. di L.Garlaschelli et al. have replicated this phenomenon using materials that would have been available to fakers in the 14th century:

Thixotropy might prove a good hypothesis to explain this “miracle”.  Thixotropy  the property of certain gels to became more fluid, even from solid to liquid, when stirred, vibrated, or otherwise mechanically disturbed, and to resolidify when left to stand. Common examples of such substances are catsup, mayonnaise and some types of paints and toothpastes.

Thus, the very act of handling the reliquary, repeatedly turning it upside down to check its state, might provide the necessary mechanical stress to induce the liquefaction. A successful performance of the rite, therefore, does not need conscious cheating, while not excluding its occurrence, as gentle or sharp movements can certainly control the timing of the liquefaction.

Indeed, over the centuries, unexpected liquefactions have often been observed whilst handling the relic case for repairs.

In support of the thixotropic hypothesis, we made up samples whose properties resembled those of the relic. We used substances that would have also been available in the fourteenth century. After some testing with bentonite clays (producing a thixotropic but unpleasantly mud-like gel), we settled for a reddish-brown FeO(OH) colloidal solution.
This gel is the right shade of brown without the addition of any dye; it becomes perfectly liquid when shaken (See Fig. 1 ) and, just like the relic, can even produce the globo and bubbles on its shiny surface (The real boiling even of a volatile liquid in a closed vessel under such conditions is quite untenable).

All the compounds for this concoction could have been readily available to a Neapolitan artist or alchemist of the 1300s. CaCO3 (from chalk, i.e. limestone, or crushed eggshells) also formed the basis of many white pictorial pigments. K2CO3, available from wood ashes was also well-known, and can be used instead of CaCO3. FeCl3 is available in the mountains around Naples

sgen2

THIXOTROPIC IRON HYDROXIDE GEL IN THE SOLID (LEFT) AND LIQUID STATE (RIGHT).

Indeed, there were several reports in the 14th century of other “liquifying blood miracles.”

However, the blood failed to liquify on the third occasion this year, over a few days in mid-December. An article in Christian Today (CT)describes how Italian Catholics have reacted with fear, for when the blood fails to liquify, as it did in 1939, 1940, 1943, 1973, and 1980 (war and Nazi occupation, cholera epidemic, and earthquake, respectively), bad stuff happens. My view is that the latest failure is connected with Donald Trump. From CT:

Fears of more earthquakes in Italy, cholera and other prophecies of doom circulated on social media after the blood of San Gennaro failed to liquefy.

Gennaro, whose name is often rendered as St Januarius, lived in the third century and is the patron saint of Naples. He is believed to have been a victim of the Roman emperor Diocletian’s Christian persecution.

At his death, it is said, some of his blood was collected by an onlooker and is to this day stored in Naples cathedral in a glass ampoule.

. . . When Pope Francis visited the cathedral in March last year, clergy said they observed the dry blood begin to turn liquid. The blood was said to have “half liquefied”. The three official liquefaction dates are in May, September and December but it does also liquefy for some Popes, although not all, when they visit the cathedral.

This month on the third annual date for the miracle, there were no signs of liquefaction. December 16 is the day Neapolitans remember the eruption of Vesuvius in 1631 and the intervention of San Gennaro to stop the lava before it entered the city.

. . . Fears of more earthquakes in Italy, cholera and other prophecies of doom circulated on social media after the blood of San Gennaro failed to liquefy.

pope-francis-blesses-the-faithful-with-the-vial-containing-the-blood-of-saint-gennaro-at-a-meeting-with-members-of-the-clergy-in-the-duomo-during-his-pastoral-visit-in-naples-in-march-2015

OH NOES! ONLY HALF LIQUIFIED! (Reuters)

It would be great if scientists could get their hands on this blood, but that’s unlikely. However, the Catholic Church’s ambiguous stand on the issue is canny, for it allows the believers to remain believers without the Vatican having to endorse a sketchy “miracle.”

h/t: Matthew Cobb

28 Comments

  1. Ken Phelps
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Geez, you gotta hope these people never run into a Three-card Monte player.

    • ploubere
      Posted December 24, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      If not for my annoying conscience, I would see an opportunity here. These people are ripe.

  2. Rita
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Not to mention that God sure picks funny ways to show holiness!Because something sensible like feeding starving children would be too obvious, I guess.

    • ploubere
      Posted December 24, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      sub

    • jaxkayaker
      Posted December 24, 2016 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      Good point. How about making manna fall from the sky again in places of famine? Or move the rains from flooded areas to drought regions?

  3. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    … the Catholic Church’s ambiguous stand on the issue is canny …

    Chalk it up to lessons learned from the Shroud of Turin.

    To paraphrase Johnny Mercer: “Ac-cent-tchu-ate ambiguity/E-lim-min-ate accountability.”

  4. rickflick
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    If you can’t believe in liquefying saint blood, what in the name of Ceiling Cat can you believe? Seriously though, you’ve got to give these priests credit for keeping a straight face. I think the one on the left can be seen winking and holding back a mischievous grin. They’ve got their act under control as well as TV preachers in the US.

    • bluemaas
      Posted December 24, 2016 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      I have believed this about the Men o’th’ various Cloths (& funny, funny hats & dresses), Mr rickflick, since I was old enough and with the aid of feminism to discern what of All of ‘it’ is w o o: these men do not themselves actually believe one frickin’ whit o’this muck. Such (blood – )y silliness ‘it’ All is ! No, they do not.

      It — ALL of ‘it’ — serves only the main purpose in their World: to control others, particularly us wimminz within it.

      I hold at any time, and particularly at the ends of Decembers, with Mr Thomas Paine whose own mind was his own church and whose own such tissue completely coagulated forevermore during a particular June when Mr Darwin and Mr Lincoln in y1809, were each themselves only four – month – old infants.

      Thus of Mr Paine’s holds true throughout The Ages up, as well, to including this specific year … … in any of its aspects’ results: “Accustom a people to believe that priests, or any other class of men, can forgive sins and you will have sins in abundance.”

      Blue

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted December 24, 2016 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

        While I definitely concur re “the Men o’th’ various Cloths (& funny, funny hats & dresses)” and find Thomas Paine’s sentiments on point, nonetheless, I find this stuff endlessly entertaining. I’m perverse that way — can’t help it, got no free will to fight it.

        Once, when the Shroud of Turin was much in the news, as it is periodically, I made plans to produce a line of beach towels with the image of the Shroud of Turin silk-screened on them. Unfortunately, the project didn’t come to fruition. I think I could have made a killing in RC (and perhaps even New Agey) circles. Then a wag of a friend suggested I start a line of such items and add Veronica’s Napkins and a Baphomet bath mat (Baphomet being the demon the Knights Templars were accused of worshipping https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baphomet). One realizes the possibilities are endless. I shoulda done it all. I coulda been a contender — in the religious kitch business.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Good to know. Had been wondering why 2016 was such a crappy year.

  6. Ken
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if stupidity is painfull.

  7. Joseph Stans
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    the blood id not liquify and Trump was elected.

    How much more information do you need?

  8. DrBrydon
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Coumadin?

  9. Roger
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Have any of those people ever heard of the internet?

    • Ken Phelps
      Posted December 24, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      You mean Satan’s Playground’O’Doubt? Probably, but they put on their self-awareness proof underwear before venturing in.

  10. Stonyground
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    My thought straight away was that 2016 had been such a terrible year for famous entertainers dying. So Satan must have been having a really good year and therefore the blood failed to liquify. The kind of people that believe in saints will believe anything.

  11. David Harper
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    “Common examples of such [thixotropic] substances are catsup, mayonnaise and some types of paints and toothpastes.”

    I shall now always think of the blood of San Gennaro as the Holy Catsup.

  12. RS
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    You all realize that the vast majority of Catholics believe in evolution, and the church permits it. Also, my family is from Naples, and this ritual is symbolic. I think there are better ways to spend your time than denigrating an ethics of compassion such as Catholic spirituality. You can be taking stupendous pictures of calico cats!!!

    Furthermore, which institutions provide the most humanitarian aid to impoverished communities in the developing world?

    • Posted December 24, 2016 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      Umm. . . . clearly a lot of people don’t THINK this ritual is symbolic. So don’t tell us that everybody thinks it’s suymbolic. Also, 27% of American Catholics are young-earth creationists, despite the Church’s stand.

      Read the Roolz: you don’t get to tell me what to write about on this site. So, for your ignorance and rudeness, I bid you to go away.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 24, 2016 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

      “which institutions provide the most humanitarian aid to impoverished communities in the developing world?”

      Faith based charity once had almost a monopoly. But in the modern era, governments and NGOs have take up a growing proportion of humanitarian aid. A big advantage of secular sources is that it normally comes with no strings attached. The Catholics like to get involved for the sake of their mission – to make more Catholics.

      • BJ
        Posted December 24, 2016 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

        “Remember, reading Bible plus accepting Jesus equals fooood.”

      • bluemaas
        Posted December 24, 2016 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

        Thank you, Ms Diane G.

        Thus of the information provided in your link — “Robert Ingersoll’s response to the question, “What hospitals have Atheists built?” is surprisingly relevant over a hundred years later. Despite European Christians being on the American continent for hundreds of years, they have been lacking in providing the medical charity they are credited for. The answer to the question “How many American hospitals have Atheists built?” is “All of them.”

        Of the 13% of religious hospitals, all of them are maintained by public funds. Those public funds are not paid for exclusively by the religious, they certainly aren’t supported by American churches. If the religious hospitals were to be truly religious and separated from secular governmental subsidies they would collapse. The question that the Christian apologist should be asked is, “Where are all the truly religious hospitals?” Slapping a Catholic or Methodist label upon a hospital wall isn’t sufficient enough to create a truly independent, private religious hospital free from Atheist support.” — is so, so helpful.

        ! heh !
        Blue

        • Diane G.
          Posted December 24, 2016 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

          Merry Solstice, Blue!

      • rickflick
        Posted December 24, 2016 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

        This line jumped out at me:

        “Catholic hospitals are merely public hospitals with a Catholic label and fewer health services.”

  13. Posted December 24, 2016 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    “It would be great if scientists could get their hands on this blood…”

    I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Instead of persuading those people to not believe in the blood, it might persuade them to not believe in scientists.

  14. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted December 25, 2016 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    “in years in which the stuff hasn’t liqufied, bad things have happened”

    I think, take any random arbitrary point in historic time, and you could find, within a few weeks, *some* Bad Thing happening.

    cr

  15. Mike
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    I give up !.


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