Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Holy Belt of the Virgin Mary, a Relic of the Assumption

It has often been adduced as proof of the early Church’s belief in the Assumption that no one has ever claimed to have a relic of the Virgin Mary’s body. However, the cathedral of the Italian city of Prato, less than 12 miles from Florence, preserves to this day a famous relic associated with the Assumption, a belt venerated as that of the Virgin Mary, given by Her to the Apostle Thomas.
The Belt seen in its reliquary with the cover removed.
According to a very ancient legend, (attested e.g. by St. John Damascene in the 8th century, among others,) when it came time for the Virgin Mary’s earthly life to end, all of the Apostles were miraculously brought to Jerusalem to be present for Her death; St. Thomas, however, was late (again!). When She had died, they laid Her body to rest in a tomb in the garden of Gethsemani, outside the city; three days later, St. Thomas arrived in Jerusalem, and wished to venerate the body. On opening the tomb, the Apostles discovered that it was nowhere to be found, and a sweet odor came forth, confirming that “Whom once it pleased to take the flesh from the Virgin Mary, and become a man, and be born (of Her)… and who after birth preserved Her virginity incorrupt, it also pleased, after Her passing, to honor Her immaculate body … by translating (it to Heaven) before the common and universal resurrection.”

There are variations to this legend, as is often the case. According to one version, the other eleven Apostles believed in the Assumption because angelic music played in the air over the tomb on the day of the burial, and for three days after; St. Thomas, arriving after the music had ceased, refused to believe them until the tomb was opened and the absence of the body confirmed. According to another version, Thomas already knew and believed in the Assumption before coming to Jerusalem, and brought the others to the tomb to show them that the body of the Virgin was gone; after which, they heard all the music together. A further addition to the story says that flowers were growing out of the stone sarcophagus in which She had been laid, and were the source of the sweet odor coming out of the tomb.
The Madona of the Belt, by Franesco d'Antonio di Bartolommeo, early 15th century.
There are likewise variations in the legend of the belt which the Virgin then gave to St. Thomas. One says that She Herself, knowing well of Thomas’ propensity to doubt, appeared above the empty tomb as the Apostles stood around it, and then removed Her belt and gave it to him as an enduring proof of the Assumption, just as Her Son had allowed him to place his finger in the wound in His side. But another version, following the story that Thomas had believed in the Assumption before going to the tomb, appeared to him and gave him the belt as a reward for his faith.
The altar of the chapel where the Holy Belt is now kept in Prato Cathedral. On the wall behind it can be seen the tabernacle where it kept.
The legend goes on to say that it remained in the Holy Land until the 12th century, when a merchant from Prato, while visiting the Holy Land, married the daughter of the priest who held it in custody. The merchant and his new wife brought the relic back with them to Italy; on the death of the former, it was given to the city’s cathedral. After a canon from Prato’s historical rival, nearby Pistoia, attempted to steal the relic in 1312, a new chapel was built in the Duomo to keep it safe, where it remains to this day. It is exposed for the veneration of the faithful five times a year, on Easter, on May 1st, on the Assumption and Nativity of the Virgin, and on Christmas Day. A special pulpit was built on the outside of Prato cathedral for these occasions by Donatello in the 1430s, since the crowds of pilgrims who came to see it were frequently too large to fit within the cathedral itself.

The Donatello Pulpit on the outside of Prato Cathedral
Bishop Gastone Simoni of Prato (now retired) brings the Holy Belt out onto the pulpit to be venerated by the faithful.
In the year 1351, the city of Prato became part of the territory of the Republic of Florence. From that point, representations of St. Thomas with the belt become a common feature of Florentine paintings of the Assumption, and on the strength of Florentine influence on the Renaissance generally, the motif passed first to the rest of Italy, and thence to other parts of Europe.

Several references to the various traditions described appear in one of the most beautiful examples of this motif, the Oddi Altarpiece by the great Raphael Sanzio; it was painted in 1502-3, when the artist was only 19 years old, and is now kept in the Painting Gallery of the Vatican Museums.

In the upper part of the image, the Virgin is crowned by Christ, and surrounded by angels, four of whom are playing musical instruments. In the lower part, the Apostles are gathered around the tomb, and some of them are looking up and listening to the music. St. Thomas’ importance to the story is emphasized by fact that he is standing in the middle of the group, with his head tilted back in a perspective that is difficult for any artist to capture properly well, and spatially isolated from the other eleven Apostles. The tomb of the Virgin is filled with flowers growing out of the stone. Standing in as the model for one of the Apostles on the far right is Raphael himself, wearing black and looking straight out at the viewer.

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