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The Museum of San Gennaro

image of museum brochure


The newest museum in Naples has to do with one of the oldest manifestations of religious faith in the city, and certainly the most fascinating. Elsewhere in Naples: Life, Death & Miracles there is material dealing with the person of San Gennaro (St. Januarius). This brief item you are reading here, however, is dedicated to the recently inaugurated Museum of the Treasure of San Gennaro, where a great number of gifts are on display that have been donated ex voto to the saintthat is, to honor a vow made per grazie ricevute—for grace received.

One should note, at the outset, that there was a great deal of resistance to having a museum of this kind in Naples. Neapolitans regularly and unselfconsciously talk to their saintstheir personal onomastic saints, of course, but especially to San Gennaro, the patron saint of the city, itself. Not all of the talk is about matters of the spirit, either, or even to invoke intercession against illness or calamity. Some of it is downright pecuniary and folksy: ("Come on, Gennà, would it kill you just this once to let these few numbers come up in the lottery, tomorrow?). Thus, there is a "cult of San Gennaro," people whose faith is so deep and whose dedication so unwavering that a museum of ex voto items seemed irreverent and out of place. The very idea of having tourists lollygagging by to look at these items out of abstract cultural interest...well, it didn't seem right.

However that may be, the museum has been open since February of this year. It took eight years to plan and seven months to set up. It is on the premises of the Duomo, the Naples Cathedral. The entrance is just to the right of the main entrance to the cathedral at the end of the portico walkway of the adjacent building. The premises of the museum occupy two floors. (The museum is not to be confused with the Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro consecrated in 1646 and within the Cathedral, itself.)

The inside of the museum is softly lighted such as to set off the 25 illuminated display cases on the ground floor and to bring out the reflected light that plays off the bronze, silver and gold of the many objects, each one the work of a craftsman and each an ex-voto gift to the saint: the bronze busts of the saint, the crucifixes, the chalice, the ostensory (the receptacle in which the Host is displayed to the congregation), the ampulla (of unique interest since the mysterious liquefaction of the saint's blood within a similar ampulla in the cathedral on certain days of the year constitutes the so-called "Miracle of San Gennaro," the most Neapolitan of all religious rituals). Many of the precious items are from the late 1600s; one is from the Angevin 1300s, and one is as recent as the early 1900s.

[special exhibit: Oct-Dec 2014]

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