Just as blood circulates through the body sustaining life, its symbolism circulates through the psyche, signifying vitalism, kindredness—and magic. Christian beliefs are indelibly marked by the ‘blood sacrifice’ of Christ, memorialized by reliquary, the ritual of transubstantiation and bleeding stigmata. Miracles or not, some such phenomena may be mediated by thixotropy, S. marcescens and carbolic acid.
Scanning the latest issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, my focus came to rest at this title: Playing God: Testing, Modeling, and Imitating Blood Miracles in Eighteenth-Century Europe. I was hooked. Reading about the miracle of Saint Januarius reminded me of two other stories that put blood symbolism at the nexus of religion and science.
Three tales are herewith“…submitted for your approval” (Twilight Zone fan or not).
The ‘Intelligent’ Blood of Saint Januarius
“For the Amusement and Entertainment of Ladies, as well as Gentlemen … All being the Product of natural Causes, and yet appearing to the Spectators to be Things beyond Nature…” So goes the handbill for a “chemical illusionist” show put on in Great Britain in 1743. Amongst the 50 plus demonstrations were ‘milk transmuted to the color of blood’ and ‘two fluids coming together and instantly becoming solid’. By the 18th century, the era of Enlightenment, the behavior of matter was a matter of scientific inquiry and public amusement.
This ‘age of philosophy’ put the city of Naples, and all of Catholicism, on the defensive. The miracle of the blood of Saint Januarius, patron Saint of Naples, was being called into question. Saint Januarius was martyred by Emperor Diocletian in 305AD. His blood, saved by one Eusebia at the time of his death, does not surface again until 1389. The newly constructed Cathedral at Naples would benefit from a relic. As it turns out, one showed up. St. Januarius’ blood was not only discovered but discovered to miraculously liquified and solidify in meaningful ways.
Over the centuries it has been said to predict eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius, acknowledge the presence of the Pope, refuse to liquify in the presence of Protestants, and even convey complex messages based on the multiple mutable properties of this ‘intelligent’ fluid. According to one elegy, the color, volume, texture and activity of the blood could presage war, death, rain, plagues, crop failure—and even positive events (when it froths).
This ampule of blood evoked fear and hope amongst Neapolitans and other Catholics, for centuries. Eventually, skeptics arose—mainly European Protestants. But the door was open to investigation. Did the juxtaposition of the Saint’s skull contain a source of heat that melted the substance, was there a temperature related seasonal pattern, was it even blood? After all, archeologists had found agave wine and scented oils that looked like blood.
The great Sir Humphrey Davy was refused access to the ‘blood’. A series of attempts to replicate its behavior met with some success, one of which relied on a mixture of mercury, lead, tin and bismuth. This mixture would go from solid to liquid upon vigorous shaking, Prince Sansevero kept his demonstration private to avoid the wrath of orthodox Jesuits.
Real blood solidifies into fibrin clots, but it doesn’t modulate its physical state back and forth for millennia. This brings us to thixotropy: ‘the property of becoming less viscous when subjected to an applied stress, shown for example by some gels that become temporarily fluid when shaken or stirred’ An alternative was proposed In 1991, by some Italian chemists.
Garlaschelli et al, offer an hypothesis: “… the very act of handling the reliquary, repeatedly turning it upside down to check its state, might provide the necessary mechanical stress to induce the liquefaction.” Certain substances will in fact liquify on shaking and solidify on standing. Familiar examples are catsup, toothpaste and semen. Thixotropic behavior of clay deposits can lead to landslide.
The original paper by the chemists from Pavia is solidified behind a pay wall at Nature. But knowledge is fluent and the thesis was covered by the New York Times and explained by the authors in detail in an issue of Chemistry in Britain. They even give a recipe for making iron oxide gel, using calcium carbonate (chalk) and ferrous chloride (from volcanic ash) and a dialysis step, which can be achieved with parchment.
The St. Januarius relic remains, but the Catholic Church has down-graded it from ‘miraculous’ to ‘prodigious’. Similarly the Church regards the Miracle of Bolsena as a ‘private revelation’— believing in it is optional.
Transubstantiation: Blood, Wine and Prodigiosin
Bolsena is an ancient city on a lake a bit north of Rome. It is the site of the Basilica of Santa Cristina. When it was not quite two hundred years old, in 1263, there came a Bohemian priest, skeptical of doctrine of transubstantiation.
During the mass, he noted that blood had appeared on the corporal used at the Eucharist. The corporal is the white cloth upon which sits the wine and bread during the ceremony. The literal transformation of wine and bread to the blood and body of christ, seemed confirmed, perhaps for the benefit of that skeptic priest.
A few decades later Pope Urban IV ordered the construction of a permanent home for the relic in nearby Orvieto—the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, where there is to this day an annual processional celebrating the corporal. Raphael depicted the miracle in a fresco.
While there are many explanations for the red stains on the corporal, one possibility, which we allude to without trying to prove, has to do with a certain bacterium. Serratia marcescens was discovered by a Venetian pharmacist in 1819, when he noticed a red discoloration of his boiled cornmeal (polenta). S. marcescens produces a vivid red pigment, prodigiosin, which is now known to have antibiotic, perhaps even anti-tumor, properties.
Bacteria grows nicely in wet, warm settings. It is not hard to imagine Serratia staining bread blood red, or even ‘turning water into wine’.
Padre Pio’s Stigmata: Divine or Dermatologic?
About this next miracle, the Catholic Church tried its best to reign it in, but Padre Pio was so popular that it was futile. Before it was over, he was sainted—not for the stigmata that is so much a part of his history, but for praying. A Bishop asked Padre Pio to pray for his friend, a doctor dying of cancer. The doctor underwent spontaneous remission, it is said, and Pope John Paul II canonized the Padre.
As to the stigmata, here are Padre Pio’s own words: “…last night something happened which I can neither explain nor understand. In the middle of the palms of my hands a red mark appeared, about the size of a penny, accompanied by acute pain in the middle of the red marks.”
This sounds a lot like the wounds of Christ nailed to the cross. Padre Pio’s long history of stigmata was never definitively refuted during his lifetime, although there were and are many skeptics. One very inflammatory accusation garnered a lot of press in 2011, the book Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age.
“Italian historian Professor Sergio Luzzatto has discovered documents including a letter from a pharmacist who arranged carbolic acid for Pio.
Professor Luzzatto suggests in Padre Pio: Miracle and Politics in a Secular Age that it was the corrosive acid that caused the bleeding on the saint's hands”.
I have heard other explanations, including porphyria cutanea tardaand dermatographism.
In any case, the reverence for Padre Pio remains fervent. The Capuchin Friars operate the Sanctuary of Saint Pio in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy. It seats 6,500. There is room outside for another 30,000.
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