The Miraculous Blood and the Music of St. Januarius

Art: The Blood Miracle of Saint Januarius in the Cathedral of Naples (1780) by Louis Jean Desprez (1743-1804).

1750 years ago, on April 21, 272, he who is venerated as the main patron of Naples, southern Italy, famous in the world, was born: Saint Januarius, bishop and martyr.

In Pozzuoli, just west of Naples, on September 19, 305, together with the deacons Sosius, Festus and Proculus, the lector Desiderius and the laymen Euthyches and Acutius, “the Bishop  of Benevento, St. Januarius, was beheaded on the stone which, steeped in his blood, is still preserved as a living sign of his martyrdom” (John Paul II, Homily, November 12, 1990, our translation).

What links Naples to its glorious patron, always so close to this great metropolis? “First of all his relics and above all this very particular blood, whose liquefaction is a phenomenon that still escapes the attention and the possibility of explanation by science, due to its absolutely anomalous behavior,” Msgr. Vincenzo De Gregorio, Abbot prelate of the Chapel of the Treasury of San Gennaro and therefore custodian of the martyr’s blood told us.

This bond is renewed three times a year, in which the ancient ampoules containing the blood are exposed to the faithful: on the Saturday preceding the first Sunday in May, this year on April 30, in memory of the first translation of the relics of St. Januarius from Pozzuoli to Naples; on September 19, the anniversary of the beheading, and on December 16, celebrating his patronage of the metropolitan archdiocese of Naples. The latter — the priest continues — is related to the disastrous activity of the nearby Vesuvius; it’s the memory of that December 16, 1631: the lava is coming, the people are desperate and the city, with the aid of the Deputation of the Chapel of the treasure of St. Januarius [the organization that since 1527 promotes the devotion to the martyr and preserves his relics and the treasury] which interprets the need and desire of the population, goes in procession with the reliquary containing the blood and the bust with the bones of the skull of St. Januarius towards Vesuvius and the lava stops.

On the occasion of the May feast, one of the local zones of the ancient city, the so-called Sedili, where the sacred relics were brought, called a composer among the most estimated and “in fashion” to write a cantata to be performed during that great and extraordinary festival of the people.

From the Middle Ages until the year 1800, the Seggi or Sedili represented the organization of the Neapolitan citizens, the distinction of the nobility and the people, the municipal administration. They were six and represented the whole city: five of the nobles (Nido, Capuana, Montagna, Portanova and Porto) and one of the people. Each had its own particular building, which was precisely called Sedile. They were quadrilateral arcades with iron gates and, on one side, a closed room for meetings, discussions and deliberations. In the feasts and processions, particularly those of St. Januarius and Corpus Christi, […] the representatives of the Sedili appeared; and the buildings of their meetings were adorned with drapery and shone with dazzling lights. In the 1700s it was also customary to give small musical performances or Cantatas there. Cavaliere (knight) di Seggio, was the usual denomination of the noble families of Naples, which resounded accompanied by admiration and reverence. After the facts of 1799, in the Bourbon restoration, the Sedili, and all the municipal order, were abolished.[1]

Among the musicians who, from the 17th to the 19th century, were able to instill the great love of the Neapolitans for St. Januarius into music and who left an immense musical heritage, we find the following.

The Neapolitan Nicola Porpora (1686-1768), leading singing teacher of his time, composed Colla stagion novella, Cantata in lode di S. Gennaro per cantarsi nel Sedile di Porta Nova per il primo Sabato di Maggio 1765.

Pasquale Cafaro (1715-1787), born in Salentina peninsula, southeastern Italy, and educated in Naples, composed four cantatas in honor of St. Januarius: in 1769, 1770, 1775, 1781.

The Neapolitan composer Gennaro Manna (1715-1779), considered by many the best teacher of his time after Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), author of the Cantata a più voci con violini e stromenti da fiato per celebrare la traslazione del sangue di S. Gennaro nel nobile sedile di S. Giuseppe a dì 25 magio 1776.

The Apulian Giacomo Insanguine, known as Monopoli (1728-1793), first organist and then director of music at the Chapel of the Treasure of St. Januarius, composed the Cantata per la traslazione del sangue di s. Gennaro.

The Abruzzese Fedele Fenaroli (1730-1818), teacher of composition at the Neapolitan  conservatory of Santa Maria di Loreto, is the author of the Cantata. Nel celebrarsi dall’eccellentissimo Sedile di Portanova la festa della traslazione del corpo di San Gennaro principal padrone della città e regno di Napoli nel primo sabato di maggio dell’anno 1777.

Giuseppe Valente, Neapolitan maestro di cappella, for the Sedile of Pendino, based on a libretto by Abbot Giovanni Fenizia, in 1778 composed the drama Il Vivo Testimonio della cristiana Religione.

On May 5, 1787, the Cantata per la transalazione [sic] del sangue di San Gennaro “by Mr. Giovanni Paisiello, maestro di cappella, of chamber music and composer of Their Majesties,” for the city district of the Nido (or Nilo).

The Cantata for solos, choir and orchestra by the Neapolitan Gaetano Manna (1751-1804), nephew of the more famous uncle Gennaro Manna, in occasione della Traslazione del Sangue del Glorioso San Gennaro, dates back to 1788.

Domenico Cimarosa composed, on a libretto by Clemente Filomarino (1755-1799), Il Trionfo della Fede per la Solenne Traslazione del Sangue del glorioso Martire S. Gennaro da festeggiarsi nel Sedile di Porto Il primo Sabato di Maggio 1794 Componimento Drammatico.

It is really true what Alexandre Dumas, père, wrote in 1841: “all [Neapolitans] kings and governments will pass away, but in the end the people and Saint Januarius will remain.”[2] And these cantatas also remain of the distinguished martyr and patron of Naples.


[1] E. Faustini-Fasini, Opere teatrali, oratori e cantate di Giovanni Paisiello, Bari 1940, note on p. 118, our translation.

[2] A. Dumas, Il Corricolo, Colonnese, Naples 1999, p. 219, our translation.

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