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Critical Thinker's Dictionary

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Januarius (a.k.a. St Gennaro)

Januarius or St. Gennaro is the patron saint of Naples, Italy. His dried blood is said to miraculously liquefy twice a year: on his feast day of September 19 and on the first Saturday in May. On those occasions, a vial allegedly containing the saint's dried blood is removed from the cathedral in Naples and taken on procession through the city streets. The ritual used to be performed on December 16, "but the liquefaction occurred relatively rarely on those occasions--apparently due to the colder temperature--and those observances have been discontinued" (Nickell 1993: 81).

This so-called miracle has been occurring for some 600 years without fail, according to the faithful. Believers and uncritical reporters repeatedly confirm that the powdery substance kept in the vial is blood and that scientists cannot explain why it liquefies. However, Italian scientists who examined the vial of blood in 1902 and in recent years were not allowed to take a sample of the stuff to the lab. They were allowed to shine a light through the vial and on the basis of a spectroscopic analysis concluded the substance is blood (Nickell 1993: 78). It is not true, however, to say that scientists can't explain why the stuff in the vial liquefies regularly. A professor of organic chemistry at the University of Pavia, Luigi Garlaschelli, and two colleagues from Milan offered thixotropy as an explanation. They made their own "blood" that liquefied and congealed, using chalk, hydrated iron chloride and salt water. Joe Nickell did the same with oil, wax and dragon's blood [a resinous dark-red plant product].

The Neapolitans are a superstitious people. There are about 20 allegedly miraculous vials of various saints' blood and nearly all of them are in the Naples region, "indicative of some regional secret" (Nickell 1993: 79). Neapolitans believe that if the blood fails to liquefy, disaster will soon follow. They claim that on at least five occasions after the blood failed to liquefy there were terrible events such as a plague in 1527 and an earthquake in southern Italy that killed 3,000 people in 1980. The proponents of this alleged miracle do not mention how many times disaster didn't happen after the blood failed to liquefy, nor do they note how many times disasters did happen after the blood did liquefy. Even though the vial is only taken on parade twice a year, apparently the powder liquefies more than a dozen times a year.  Selective thinking seems to be going on here.

According to traditional Catholic hagiography, Januarius was a bishop beheaded during the reign of the emperor Diocletian (284-305). Yet, there is no historical record of his alleged blood relic before 1389, more than a thousand years after his martyrdom. Some doubt that Januarius even existed (Nickell: 1993 79).

Most skeptics are convinced that whatever is in the vial is reacting to some natural phenomenon, such as temperature change or motion. Even some religious thinkers consider such 'miracles' frivolous and unworthy of a god.

See also incorruptible body and miracle.

further reading

book

Nickell, Joe. Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions and Healing Cures (Prometheus Books: Buffalo, N.Y., 1993).

websites

The Blood of St. Januarius by L. Garlaschelli, F. Ramaccini, S. Della Sala

Examining Miracle Claims by Joe Nickell

The Life of St. Januarius

news

Science and the “Miraculous Blood” by Joe Nickell "... thousands of the faithful triumphantly kissed the flask despite fears of swine flu (H1N1 virus) contagion ... Naples’ Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe stated that he believed in the “power of prayer and of the protection” of San Gennaro."

Last updated 19-Dec-2013

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