Science and the “Miraculous Blood”

November 3, 2009

On September 19, 2009, the “blood” of Naples’ patron saint, San Gennaro (St. Januarius”) performed its usual “miracle” during a ceremony held annually in the Naples cathedral. The congealed red substance mysteriously liquefied, supposedly contravening science and heralding good luck for Neopolitans. In what might have seemed a further challenge to science, thousands of the faithful triumphantly kissed the flask despite fears of swine flu (H 1 N 1 virus) contagion. But as is so often the case, there is much more to the story.

First, although San Gennaro is supposed to have been martyred during Roman emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians (initiated in a.d. 303), the Catholic Church has been unable to verify his historical existence. Moreover, there I no record of his alleged blood before 1389, and the legend of its acquisition dates from some two centuries later—grounds for suspicion indeed.

As with the fraudulent “shroud” of Turin, dubious scientific claims have been made about the “blood” (e.g., based on an antiquated spectral analysis). However, the small flask has never been opened and subjected to forensic serological tests. In fact, forensic analyst John F. Fischer and I demonstrated in 1991 that the phenomenon could be easily duplicated using a small amount of melted beeswax in olive oil colored with a red pigment. The mixture is solidified when cool, but upon being warmed (as by body heat or candles) it suddenly liquefies. In 1996, Luigi Garlaschelli was able to non-destructively examine a similar liquefying blood relic (that of St. Lorenzo in Arnaseno): He immersed the ampoule in warm water, whereupon a “miracalous” liquefaction occurred, just like the Januarian phenomenon.

In 2004, Luigi and I together visited the Italian sites that hold reputed Januarian relics, including a stone at Pozzuoli upon which the saint was reputed to have been beheaded. Examination in the late 1980s found it to be an old, probably seventh-century altar with traces of paint. (See my Relics of the Christ , 2007, pp. 44–49.)

As to the kissing of the flask during the swine-flu scare, Naples’ Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe stated that he believed in the “power of prayer and of the protection” of San Gennaro. (See “Kissing Flask Allowed Despite Fears of Flu,” Buffalo News , Sept. 13, 2009.) However, the cardinal convened a committee of scientific experts with the result that, following each kiss, “a disinfected handkerchief” was passed over the reliquary’s glass panel. (See Elizabeth Povoledo, “Faith Conquers Fears of Swine Flu for Fans of Naples’ Patron Saint,” The New York Times , Sept. 21, 2009.) After all, since faith does not have a good track record in preventing contagious diseases, a little science might be in order.