The Treasure of San Gennaro is one of the largest collections of jewelry in the world, comparable to the crown jewels of England or France. It is also one of the most important and valuable collections of religious art. The Musee Maillol in Paris presents 70 pieces of the Treasure of San Gennaro from March 19 through July 20, 2014.
Unlike the crown jewels of royals and Russian czars, or even the Church or State, the treasure of San Gennaro actually belongs to the Neapolitans themselves. The jewels are said to be worth more than Queen Elizabeth’s jewels in the Tower of London.
In the third century, Emperor Diocletian martyred the patron saint of Naples, San Gennaro, during the persecutions of Christians. When Naples suffered from plague and war, the people of Naples sought protection of their city from the saint, San Gennaro.
The history of the Chapel of the Treasure began on January 13, 1527 during the plague. The Elect of Naples made a vow, and an indenture was attested between the Neapolitans and San Gennaro, who had been dead for more than 1,200 years. Relics for the patron saint, were traditionally kept in an inaccessible area in the left tower. In exchange for the saint’s protection against the plague, poverty, shipwrecks and eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, the people of Naples declared to establish and maintain a treasure in a chapel, especially built for him within the cathedral.
The Deputation of the Royal Chapel of Treasure was established in 1601 and is one of the oldest organizations still active in Italy. It consists of ten representatives of nobility, and two Neapolitans. By 1608, the first stone of the “The New Treasury” was set into the Cathedral, proportionally sited and opposite to the Basilica of Santa Restitua.
Three times a year, blood from two ampoules are liquefied in an ornate silver reliquary as it has been done, on the same dates for centuries. Devotees affirm that the liquidation of the blood is a miracle. However, there are times when the blood fails to turn liquid, and it is taken as a bad omen. Scientists attribute the liquefaction to “ambient heat or the warmth generated” by the archbishop while he holds the reliquary in his hands during the ceremony.
The jewel-encrusted treasures represent seven centuries of faith, commitment and artistry. Over the centuries, kings, popes, aristocrats and the sect’s followers have contributed to the treasure in tribute to San Gennaro. Normally hidden away, the delegation has safeguarded and preserved the tradition of supervising worship and the Treasure of San Gennaro until recently. The precious treasure first left the chapel in Naples to travel to Rome’s Fondazione Roma Museum in 2013. Its Paris engagement is the first time that it has left Italy.
Highlights include a saints’ bust in silver bountifully festooned with necklaces and a golden miter, the ceremonial headdress of bishops, commissioned to crown the figure on procession days. The gold-plated silver miter features 3,964 diamonds, nearly 200 emeralds, 164 rubies and two garnets.
A winged Archangel St. Michael is featured on a silver altar cross that is adorned with red coral and silver votive lamps. He slays a bronze dragon, thrashing under his feet, with its tongue dangling on the ground.
In 1679, the Necklace of San Gennaro was created to drape around the reliquary bust of San Gennaro. The necklace, considered the most precious of all the jewels in the collection, was donated by the Bourbons. Forged with 13 large solid-gold meshes, it is hung with jewel-studded crosses, donated by the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and other royalties of Europe. The necklace also contains Columbian emeralds, Ceylon sapphires and diamonds that were bequeathed over the centuries.
According to the exhibition organizers, every sovereign that has ruled or passed through Naples has bequeathed treasures to San Gennaro, commencing with the “House of Anjou in 1305” to the “House of Savoy in 1933,” and even the “House of Bonaparte.” All bestowed in respect to the Patron Saint Gennaro.
The Treasure of San Gennaro, exhibited in Paris, are exceptional masterworks that offer onlookers insight to the artistic, religious, economic and historical significance of the remarkable devotion and skilfulness of the Neapolitan artisans.
By: Dawn Levesque