It’s said that in the year 305C.E, an Italian now known as Saint Januarius, was martyred by decapitation. We're told that some enterprising bystander witnessing this festive event had the foresight to not only bottle some of the resulting blood but also to save the head of the unfortunate man.
In 1337, just about the time when relics-of-the-saints were becoming very popular among competing archbishops – the famous Shroud of Turin popped up at about that time, too – the Cathedral of Naples announced that the head of Januarius and the vial of his blood, recently rediscovered, were going on display. Mind you, the head was not actually shown. A silver urn said to contain it was displayed, as it is even to this day. It seems no one has ever troubled, dared, or cared – to look inside the urn. But faith is a wonderful thing.
Fifty-two years later, the Archbishop of Naples disclosed another wonderful discovery: under certain limited circumstances, he said, the red-brown congealed blood in its lavishly-mounted reliquary would miraculously liquefy -- if the congregation's prayers were earnest enough.
For the past six centuries, this popular wonder has been regularly exhibited at the cathedral to the never-failing astonishment of the public. In the ceremony, the reigning archbishop reverently inverts the bottle, the congregation prays fervently, the process is repeated many times, and eventually the "blood" becomes a bright red, freely-flowing liquid. Wow…
We're told that only the archbishop can bring about this transformation, and that the miracle only occurs – conveniently – on special feast days. The unfortunate fact is that the substance in that reliquary has often liquefied during the process of cleaning and polishing the device, while it is being handled – by quite ordinary folks – on any day of the year.
In recent years, three Italian chemists became curious about this wonder. One of them is Dr. Luigi Garlaschelli, who I know well, and he has been able to shed welcome light on this rather silly wonder. Unable to directly examine the substance due its sanctified nature, his team had to be satisfied with examining previous – very poor – evidence. Iron, an element present in hemoglobin, had been detected on the reliquary, and the resulting decision was that the substance held inside the reliquary was indeed real blood. Parapsychologists and other such folks don't need jogging or a treadmill for workouts; they get all their exercise from jumping to conclusions.
The chemist team, however, was unsatisfied with that conclusion. They reasoned that if they could replicate the observed effect, there might be some reason to doubt the validity of the miracle. Using materials that were available locally from the slopes of nearby Mount Vesuvius, and utilizing procedures that were well-known to medieval workers, the team eventually produced a liquid that in every way matches the liquid in the reliquary. I have a sample of their product in my prop-box. It is the correct red-brown color, it coats the interior surface of the container in the same way as the original, and it gels solidly after only a few hours if undisturbed. I often use it during my lectures…