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.