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main index    © Jeff Matthews   entry Jan. 2009

Everything is related to Naples
Number 16 in this series. Link to all items here.

St. Aspren—Take Two Saints and Call Me in the Morning.


There are two churches in Naples dedicated to the first bishop of the city, Sant'Aspreno,
known in English as St. Asprenas or St. Aspren. One is Sant' Aspreno ai Crociferi, built in 1633 just outside the old northern wall of the city in the Vergini section of Naples in 1633; it was rebuilt in 1760.

The other is Sant'Aspreno al Porto on the other side of the old city off of what is now the wide main street, Corso Umberto. Historically, this church is more interesting than the other one, since the origins, they say, go back to the first century A.D; that is, it was the home of Aspren, himself, where he lived when he met Peter when the Apostle stopped in Naples on the way to Rome. Indeed, Aspren is said to have been converted by Peter, himself. The site is documented as a church as early as the eighth century; it was rebuilt in the 17th century. The urban renewal of Naples, the risanamento, in the 1890s led to the church being incorporated into the side of the new Stock Exchange building. As a house of worship, it is closed; it is open to sight-seers only occasionally. It holds a number of salvaged bits and pieces of another paleo-Christian church, nearby San Pietro ad Aram, part of which was torn down during the risanamento. So far, nothing strange—interesting buildings with an historic link to paleo-Christianity in Naples.

But hold on. It turns out that in Roman Catholic hagiology, St. Aspren is the one that you invoke in order to get rid of a headache! How can this be? Aspren? Aspirin? Aspirin is a brand name for the miraculous (!) pain-killer, acetylsalicylic acid; the name Aspirin was invented by the Bayer corporation in Germany and first marketed in 1899. How can something as similar-sounding as "Aspren"—the first bishop of Naplesalso be the name of a saint you call on when you have a headache? How can this be a coincidence? I don't think I buy the official etymology of A (for Acetly-) plus -spir (from SpirsäureGerman for meadowsweet, the plant from which the drug is derived) plus -IN (to make it sound like a medicine.) Perhaps...

Section 2683 of the Roman Catholic Catechism tell us that saints...

...contemplate God, praise him and constantly care for those whom they have left on earth...[and that]... intercession is their most exalted service to God's plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world...

Thus most ailments and misfortunes have a saint you can turn to for intercession: Bernardino of Siena for lung problems, Deicolus for childhood diseases, Epipodius for victims of betrayal or torture, etc. There are many hundreds.

Whom should I call? I imagine—but don't know—that there is an office in the Vatican that determines what saint gets invoked for what ailment. I want to know if there is also a section of that office reserved for mischievous saint-choosers with way too much time on their hands. I mean, how long can there have been a saint for headaches, anyway! Maybe 1899?

Scene: the Vatican, 1899. Two monks, Fra Luigi and Fra Guido, are doing the crossword puzzle in the Osservatore Romano.

Luigi: Uh...eight letters...for rabies...uh...
Guido: Quiteria.
Luigi: Huh? 1, 2, 3...yep. that fits. Nice going. How did you know that one?
Guido: Got bit once.
Luigi: Oh. OK. Wait a second... I have a headache.
Guido: Headache? Hold on...mmmm...I don't think there IS one.
Luigi: No, I said I have a headache. Have you got any of those new-fangled German pills...Aspirin? Is that what they're called?
Guido: What does he have to do with it?
Luigi: What does who have to do with what?
Guido: Aspren. You said St. Aspren. What does he...
Luigi: ...No. I said I have a headache and asked you for some Aspirin.
Guido: And I said that there IS no saint for head...wait a minute...I've got an idea...

But as it turns out, in the old oratory of Sant'Aspreno al Porto, there is an altar with a built-in niche to handle supplicants who wished to kneel and rest their aching heads on something while they invoked relief. This has been going on for many centuries, so the above 1899 scenario may need some work. There are other alternatives to coincidence, however: (1) Bayer chemists may have noticed the similarity and decided to play a little joke. (Here, invent your own dialogue between Oberdiplomchemiker Fritz and his boss, Überoberdiplomchemiker, Hans. I realize that German chemists with a sense of humor are not very likely); or  (2) Aspren may have been the very first person to synthesize acetylsalicylic acid and decided to name it after himself. I realize that that is scientifically not very likely.

I think I'm getting a headache.



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