The Virgin Mary’s belt

On ‘display’ in Prato

Deirdre Pirro
December 15, 2011

There is much more to Prato, a town about 10 kilometres north of Florence, than its textile industry, almond biscuits and modern art museum. For instance, at 6 pm each Christmas Day, it is the site of one of Italy's most unusual religious ceremonies. The main cathedral, which is dedicated to Saint Stephen, the first of Christ's disciples to be martyred, becomes the backdrop for the ostensione (?display') of a precious holy relic of the Roman Catholic church. Relics, as the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, are ?part of a deceased holy person's body or belongings kept as an object of reverence,' and they are venerated not only in Christianity but also in many other religions, including Islam and Buddhism.

 

Prato's Duomo or cathedral houses yet another important treasure: a glorious fresco cycle by Filippo Lippi, completed in 1465. The magnificent frescoes, which flank the main altar area, were restored in 2008: see TF 75 and choose 'Arte' at www.portalecultura.prato.it and click the link to 'Duomo' (in Italian).

 

Prato's revered object is said to be the Virgin's belt (also called a ?girdle'), which, some believe, the Virgin Mary handed to Saint Thomas, the apostle known for doubting the miraculous, as proof of her assumption, when her body and soul ascended into heaven upon her death. The belt, called the Sacra Cintola or Sacro Cingolo in Italian, is an 87-centimetre-long strip of fine material made from goat's hair dyed green and embroidered with gold thread. Not only is it encased in a glass and gold reliquary, but after an early attempt to steal the treasure, the reliquary is kept carefully locked inside a silver casket within the altar of the special chapel in the cathedral built to house the Sacra Cintola by Lorenzo di Filippo between 1386 and 1390. Scenes from the Madonna's life and the story of the relic cover the chapel's walls, frescoes done by Agnolo Gaddi in 1392-1395. Behind the additional protection of magnificent bronze gates created by Maso di Bartolomeo, Giovanni Pisano's statue of the Madonna with Child looks down from the chapel's altar.

 

According to legend, following the First Crusade (1096-1099), Michele Dagomari, a merchant from Prato, fell in love with and married a local girl in Jerusalem. As part of her dowry, the girl's mother presented Dagomari with the Madonna's belt. When he returned home in 1141, he told no one about it until, close to death about 30 years later, he gave it to what was then his parish church of Saint Stephen.

 

Soon a popular location for pilgrimages, especially by women wishing to become pregnant, the relic not only represented Prato's religious fervour but also its civic pride. In 1312, when Giovanni di Ser Landetto, nicknamed Musciattino, unhappily stole it and tried to take it home to Pistoia, a rival town to Prato, he was enveloped in a thick fog and, after floundering around in the countryside, found himself right back where he started. Immediately arrested, he was sentenced by the Pratesi to have his right hand cut off, then,  tied to an ass' tail, to be taken and burned at the stake. Once his offending extremity had been severed, the crowd was so enraged it hurled the hand up against the cathedral wall, where the blood-red handprint (most likely veining in the marble fa?ade) is said to be still visible today.

 

In the Middle Ages, few items of clothing were more symbolic than the belt from which important objects were hung, including a sword and keys. As the story of Mary's gift spread, from about 1270 onwards, it prompted some of the most extraordinary iconography in the history of Renaissance art. One such painting is Filippo Lippi's Madonna of the Sacred Belt, in the collection of the Prato Civic Museum. Likewise, over the centuries and with the Vatican's approval, many illustrious pilgrims have visited Prato's shrine, like Saint Francis of Assisi, Maria de' Medici and several popes, including the late Pope John Paul II in 1986.

 

Each December 25, people flock to Prato to see the ceremony, which is repeated on four other occasions during the year as part of the Roman Catholic calendar: Easter; May 1, marking the month dedicated to the Virgin; August 15, in celebration of Mary's assumption; and September 8, the day devoted to her nativity. Following a procession through the city streets led by musicians and other people dressed in Renaissance costumes, a solemn mass is held in the cathedral, during which the archbishop of Prato will retrieve the Sacra Cintola from the casket using three keys (one key is always in his possession whilst the other two are kept in the mayor's custody). After passing an incense-burning thurible (censer) over the relic, the prelate will then display it three times from Ghirlandaio's loggia to the faithful seated inside the basilica before moving outside to the beautiful external pulpit decorated by Donatello. Here, he will hold it up high for the public in the piazza below to see, exhibiting it three times in three different directions. Finally, before the relic is returned to its vault, worshippers are invited to queue up and kiss the reliquary.

Whether you are a modern-day pilgrim or merely someone curious to experience a cultural tradition, Prato may be the place for you this Christmas. Happy Holidays, everyone!

 

 

In September 2008, after 370 years, the reliquary holding the Sacra Cintola was opened for the first time. This was necessary because, while the relic itself proved to be in good condition, its seventeenth-century container had seriously deteriorated and required restoration. Giampaolo Babetto, currently one of the most famous goldsmiths in the world, was commissioned to replace it. The new reliquary (or teca, in Italian) that visitors will see on Christmas Day is 81.5 x 7.4 x 3.2 centimetres. Made in white gold, silver and rock crystal, it weighs 4.8 kilos.

 

 

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