Martyr, Bishop of Beneventum.
Saint Januarius is believed to have suffered in the persecution of Diocletian, c.305. With regard to the history of his life and martyrdom, we know next to nothing. The various collections of “Acts”, though numerous, are all extremely late and untrustworthy. Bede (c.733) in his “Martyrologium” has epitomized the so-called “Acta Bononiensia”. To this source we may trace the following entry in the present Roman Martyrology, though the reference to the miracle of the liquefaction is an addition of much later date. “At Pozzuoli in Campania [the memory] of the holy martyrs Januarius, Bishop of Beneventum, Festus his deacon, and Desiderius lector, together with Socius deacon of the church of Misenas, Proculus deacon of Pozzuoli, Eutyches and Acutius, who after chains and imprisonment were beheaded under the Emperor Diocletian. The body of Saint Januarius was brought to Naples, and there honourably interred in the church, where his holy blood is kept unto this day in a phial of glass, which being set near his head becomes liquid and bubbles up as though it were fresh.”
In the Breviary a longer account is given. There we are told that “Timotheus, President of Campania,” was the official who condemned the martyrs, that Januarius was thrown into a fiery furnace, but that the flames would not touch him, and that the saint and his companions were afterwards exposed in the amphitheatre to wild beasts without any effect. Timotheus declaring that this was due to magic, and ordering the martyrs to be beheaded, the persecutor was smitten with blindness, but Januarius cured him, and five thousand persons were converted to Christ before the martyrs were decapitated. Then, as the Breviary lesson continues, “the cities of these coasts strove to obtain their bodies for honourable burial, so as to make sure of having them advocates with God. By God’s will, the relics of Januarius were taken to Naples at last, after having been carried from Pozzuoli to Beneventum and from Beneventum to Monte Vergine. When they were brought thence to Naples they were laid in the chief church there and have been there famous on account of many miracles. Among these is remarkable the stopping of eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, whereby both that neighbourhood and places afar off have been like to be destroyed. It is also well known and is the plain fact, seen even unto this day, that when the blood of Saint Januarius, kept dried up in a small glass phial, is put in sight of the head of the same martyr, it is wont to melt and bubble in a very strange way, as though it had but freshly been shed.”
It is especially this miracle of the liquefaction which has given celebrity to the name of Januarius, and to this we turn our attention. Let it at once be said that the supposition of any trick or deliberate imposture is out of the question, as candid opponents are now willing to admit. For more than four hundred years this liquefaction has taken place at frequent intervals. If it were a trick it would be necessary to admit that all the archbishops of Naples, and that countless ecclesiastics eminent for their learning and often for their great sanctity, were accomplices in the fraud, as also a number of secular officials; for the relic is so guarded that its exposition requires the concurrence of both civil and ecclesiastical authority. Further, in all these four hundred years, no one of the many who, upon the supposition of such a trick, must necessarily have been in the secret, has made any revelation or disclosed how the apparent miracle is worked. Strong indirect testimony to this truth is borne by the fact that even at the present time the rationalistic opponents of a supernatural explanation are entirely disagreed as to how the phenomenon is to be accounted for.
What actually takes place may be thus briefly described: in a silver reliquary, which in form and size somewhat suggests a small carriage lamp, two phials are enclosed. The lesser of these contains only traces of blood and need not concern us here. The larger, which is a little flagon-shaped flask four inches in height and about two and a quarter inches in diameter, is normally rather more than half full of a dark and solid mass, absolutely opaque when held up to the light, and showing no displacement when the reliquary is turned upside down. Both flasks seem to be so fixed in the lantern cavity of the reliquary by means of some hard gummy substance that they are hermetically sealed. Moreover, owing to the fact that the dark mass in the flask is protected by two thicknesses of glass it is presumably but little affected by the temperature of the surrounding air. Eighteen times in each year, i.e.
- on the Saturday before the first Sunday in May and the eight following days
- on the feast of Saint Januarius (19 September) and during the octave
- on 16 December
a silver bust believed to contain the head of Saint Januarius is exposed upon the altar, and the reliquary just described is brought out and held by the officiant in view of the assembly. Prayers are said by the people, begging that the miracle may take place, while a group of poor women, known as the “zie di San Gennaro” (aunts of Saint Januarius), make themselves specially conspicuous by the fervour, and sometimes, when the miracle is delayed, by the extravagance, of their supplications.
The officiant usually holds the reliquary by its extremities, without touching the glass, and from time to time turns it upside down to note whether any movement is perceptible in the dark mass enclosed in the phial. After an interval of varying duration, usually not less than two minutes or more than an hour, the mass is gradually seen to detach itself from the sides of the phial, to become liquid and of a more or less ruby tint, and in some instances to froth and bubble up, increasing in volume. The officiant then announces, “Il miracolo é fatto”, a Te Deum is sung, and the reliquary containing the liquefied blood is brought to the altar rail that the faithful may venerate it by kissing the containing vessel. Rarely has the liquefaction failed to take place in the expositions of May or September, but in that of 16 December the mass remains solid more frequently than not.
It is of course natural that those who are reluctant to admit the supernatural character of the phenomenon should regard the liquefaction as simply due to the effects of heat. There are, they urge, certain substances (e.g. a mixture of spermaceti and ether) which have a very low boiling point. The heat produced by the hands of the officiant, the pressing throng of spectators, the lights on the altar, and in particular the candle formerly held close to the reliquary to enable the people to see that the mass is opaque, combine to raise the temperature of the air sufficiently to melt the substance in the phial – a substance which is assumed to be blood, but which no one has ever analysed. Further, ever since the early years of the eighteenth century, sceptical scientists, by using certain chemical preparations, have reconstructed the miracle with more or less of success; that is to say, they have been able to exhibit some red substance which, though at first apparently solid, melted after an interval without any direct application of heat. None the less, it may be said with absolute confidence that the theory of heat affords no adequate explanation of the phenomena observed.
For more than a century careful observations of the temperature of the air in the neighbourhood of the relic have been made on these occasions and the records have been kept. It is certain from the scientific memoirs of Professors Fergola, Punzo, and Sperindeo that there is no direct relation between the temperature, and the time and manner of the liquefaction. Often when the thermometer has stood at 77° Fahrenheit or even higher, liquefaction has been delayed for as much as twenty or even forty minutes, while on the other hand the contents of the phial have sometimes liquefied in considerably less time than this when the thermometer remained as low as 60 or 65 degrees. Moreover, the heat theory by no means accounts for another more remarkable fact observed for quite two hundred years past. The mass in melting commonly increased in volume, but when it solidifies again it does not necessarily return to its original bulk. Sometimes the whole phial is seen to be occupied, at other times hardly more than half. This has led a Neapolitan scientist of modern times, Professor Albini, to suggest a new physical theory derived from observing the behaviour of a viscous fluid such as partly congealed honey. He conjectures that the unknown substance in the phial consists of some highly divided solid matter which is partly held in suspension by a disproportionately small quantity of liquid. When at rest, the liquid sinks to the bottom of the phial, while the solid particles form a sort of crust not easily displaced when the vessel is turned upside down. This cohesion is however overcome by repeated movements, such as those that the reliquary experiences when the moment of liquefaction is impatiently waited for. Further, such a viscous fluid easily cakes upon the walls of the containing vessel, and admits large air bubbles which cause the deceptive appearance of a change of volume.
Professor Albini claims to have reproduced all the phenomena with a compound made of powdered chocolate and the serum of milk. On the other hand, those who have studied closely the process of liquefaction of the contents of the phial declare that such an explanation is absolutely impossible. Moreover, there seem to be well-attested instances of liquefaction taking place both in the case of this and other similar relics of blood, when the reliquary has been standing by itself without any movement whatsoever.
Accordingly, the suggestion has also been made that the phenomenon is due to some form of psychic force. The concentration of thought and will of the expectant crowd and specially of the “aunts of Saint Januarius” are held to be capable of producing a physical effect. Against this, however, must be set the fact that the liquefaction has sometimes taken place quite unexpectedly and in the presence of very few spectators.
Probably the most serious difficulty against the miraculous character of the phenomenon is derived from the circumstance that the same liquefaction takes place in the case of other relics, nearly all preserved in the neighbourhood of Naples, or of Neapolitan origin. These include relics which are affirmed to be the blood of Saint John the Baptist, of Saint Stephen the first martyr, of Saint Pantaleone, of Saint Patricia, of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, and others. In the case of the alleged liquefaction of the so-called “Milk of Our Lady” or of the fat of Saint Thomas Aquinas we have probably a pure fiction, but the phials traditionally associated with the names of Saint John the Baptist, Saint Stephen, and Saint Pantaleone undoubtedly still exhibit on the respective feast days of these saints phenomena exactly analogous to those shown in the case of the more famous relic of Saint Januarius. Further, it is asserted by eyewitnesses of scientific credit and high respectability that a block of basalt at Pozzuoli, reputed to bear traces of the blood of Saint Januarius, grows vividly red for a short time in May and September at the hour when the miracle of the liquefaction takes place in Naples.
Three other points attested by recent investigators seem worthy of special note.
It now appears that the first certain record of the liquefaction of the blood of Saint Januarius dates from 1389, and not from 1456, as formerly supposed.
In 1902 Professor Sperindeo was allowed to pass a ray of light through the upper part of the phial during liquefaction and examine this beam spectroscopically. The experiment yielded the distinctive lines of the spectrum of blood. This, however, only proves that there are at any rate traces of blood in the contents of the phial.
Most remarkable of all, the apparent variation in the volume of the relic led in 1902 and 1904 to a series of experiments in the course of which the whole reliquary was weighed in a very accurate balance. It was found that the weight was not constant any more than the volume, and that the weight of the reliquary when the blood filled the whole cavity of the phial exceeded, by 26 grammes, the weight when the phial seemed but half full. This very large difference renders it impossible to believe that such a substantial variation in weight can be merely due to an error of observation.
We are forced to accept the fact that, contrary to all known laws a change goes on in the contents of this hermetically sealed vessel which makes them heavier and lighter in a ratio roughly, but not exactly, proportional to their apparent bulk. The reality of the miracle of Saint Januarius has repeatedly been made the subject of controversy. It has had much to do with many conversions to Catholicism, notably with that of the elder Herder. Unfortunately, however, allegations have often been made as to the favourable verdict expressed by scientific men of note, which are not always verifiable. The supposed testimony of the great chemist, Sir Humphry Davy, who is declared to have expressed his belief in the genuineness of the miracle, seems to be a case in point.