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Narni’s Cathedral of San Giovenale: a Setting of Splendor

Anne Robichaud talk about Narni’s Cathedral in Umbria, and San Giovenale

In Umbria medieval gem, the Narnesi unite in a joyous month-long celebration of San Giovenale

In Italy, the patron saints of cities, towns and villages are feted with joy, emotion, grande passione – and splendid celebratory events rooted in local traditions and history.

In Umbria medieval gem, Narni, the narnesi unite in a joyous month-long celebration of their patron saint, San Giovenale, with events including the re-enactment of medieval markets, banquets, pageants in elegant costumes, concerts and a jousting match.

A young doctor from Carthage will become the saint of Narni

A young doctor from Carthage (Tunis today), Giovenale headed to Rome – possibly to escape persecution (although little is know about his life) – and after his ordination, was sent to evangelize in the area of Roman Narnia and then was ordained Bishop of Narni.

Tradition tells us that he was a prolific miracle worker, and his thaumaturgy even resulted in the conversion of 2,000 in a single day. He died in 376 A.D. and was buried outside Roman wall of Narnia on the Via Flaminia, Roman consular road of 220 B.C.

His successor, Bishop Maximus built a chapel near his grave, using money donated by 40 sailors who had been saved in a storm by the intercession of the saint.

This chapel was probably the Sacello di San Cassio, which was built against the Roman city wall and is englobed into Narni’s Cathedral di San Giovenale.

The Offering of the Candles to San Giovenale in Narni’s

Since the 5th century, his feast has been celebrated on May 3rd, with events starting the night before in Narni’s San Giovenale Cathedral.

Flags of Narni’s three terzieri – competing in the jousting match mid-May – dangle from the arches of the Cathedral portico.

Many locals will gather in anticipation for the evening Offerta dei Ceri (“the Offering of the Candles”) celebration in which candles are offered in homage to San Giovenale by the medieval confraternita, the lay brotherhoods, and Narni dignitaries and nobility inside the Cathedral.

The flags of the three terzieri – Mezule (black and white), Fraporta (blue and red), and Santa Maria (purple and orange) – jut out from the 12th-century capitals flanking the main nave.

As day gives up to night, the procession of noblemen and confratelli of medieval Narni, parade solemnly into the San Giovenale Cathedral bearing lighted candles (ceri)….their veiled dame (noblewomen) waiting decorously to one side.

Backdropping the bishop as he leads prayers to the beloved Saint, the canopied baldacchino over the altar adds a Baroque touch to this medieval church – as does the 18th-century silver reliquary to the right of the bishop.

This bust of San Giovenale will be blessed and carried solemnly in the procession the next morning following a celebratory Mass in his cathedral.

The relics of San Giovenale was stolen!

San Giovenale’s successor, Bishop Massimo (died 416 A.D.) mandated construction of an oratory on his sepulcher, just outside the Narni Roman wall, which rapidly became a most venerated site.

San Giovenale’s body, as well as those of Saints Cassia and Fausta (6th-century Narni bishop – and his wife), were spirited off to Lucca by a Lombard duke in the 9th century.

The body of San Giovenale was later returned to Narni when Pope John VIII (born in Narni) threatened him with excommunication in the late 9th-century – although not Cassio and Fausta.

On their return to Narni, the relics of San Giovenale were apparently buried in the rock below a new shrine (now known as the Sacello di Santi Giovanale e Cassio) that was built close to the site of his original grave.

The Sacello di Santi Giovenale e Cassio was incorporated into the 12th-century cathedral in the 15th-century with the addition of a fourth nave (on the right as one enters the cathedral).

Later this small votive chapel is called simply Sacello di Cassio (“Chapel of Cassio”) in celebration of return of the relics of Cassio and Fausta in the late 17th-century (and at that time, the relics of San Giovenale were moved to the crypt beneath the main altar).

The wall serving as entrance to the sacello was constructed in the early 16th century, adopting architectural fragments from an earlier structure.

The inscription on the architrave above the entrance – just above the cosmatesque mosaic motif – records that Bishop Pietro Gormaz (1499-1515) commissioned the structure. Above this inscription, a 6th marble relief depicting two lambs facing a cross is dedicated to San Cassio and his wife Fausta.

Discovering the San Giovenale Cathedral with Anne

An early 14th-century polychrome wooden statue of San Giovenale is to the left of the relief….and to the right, a 16th-century Pieta’.

If you enter the door below the relief of the lambs, you’ll step into the 17th-century chapel, two 15th-century images of the saints, Giovenale and Cassio, reigning over the altar.

To the left of the altar, a small doorway leads you to the original sacello carved into the Roman walls of the town sheltering the sandstone sarcophagus once holding the body of San Giovenale, 7th-century reliefs sculpted on the front of the tomb.

As you leave the sacello, passing once again through the small chapel, look up as you re-enter the cathedral’s fourth nave. You’ll see a recent (1955) discovery: a 9th-century mosaic of Cristo benedicente (Christ blessing), flanked by 12th-c. frescoes depicting miracles of San Giovenale:

You’ll want to visit San Giovenale’s tomb below the main altar before leaving.

As you head to the main altar, you’ll pass San Giovenale blessing you in the 15th-c tempera on wood panel painting by Lorenzo di Pietro, known as “Vecchietta.”

Vecchietta’s wooden statue of Sant’Anthony Abbot is across the nave on the left side of the cathedral, his name and date (1475), inscribed on the base.

San Giovenale’s tomb is in the crypt, just below the altar and his relics were transferred here in the mid- 17th-century, although work on the presbytery and crypt was finished only in the 18th-century.

The narnesi make frequent visits to his tomb…..and not just on his feast day.

About Anne

Anne Robichaud received her degrees in both English Literature and Italian Language and Literature from the University of Santa Clara (California) in 1970, after also having completed studies in Italian literature and culture, as well as art history at the University for Foreigners in Perugia, Italy in 1969. She furthered her studies at the University of California, Berkeley in l972 and since 1973 has lived in Italy.

After teaching for two years in Rome, she and her Italian husband moved to a mountain area outside of Assisi (Umbria) where they worked the land, raised three children, and began restoring their farmhouse.

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