On September the 8th, Norm and I were privileged to be able to witness the display of one of the most sacred relics in the Catholic tradition, the “Sacred Belt” (Sacra Cintola) of the Virgin Mary in Prato, Italy. The display or “ostensione” takes place only five times a year, on Christmas, Easter, May 1st, August 15th (The Assumption of the Virgin Mary), and September 8th (Nativity of the Virgin Mary). This last date is the most important of the displays, with large crowds gathering in conjunction with further festivities that lasts three days. The festivities for this particular evening started with a procession beginning at 8:00PM, and the display of the belt to follow at 10:30 PM. We thought, ok, we could hang out that long and see what this was all about.
Here’s a little history of the belt: (taken from our brochure)
The Sacred Belt of the Prato Cathedral is a thin strip of green fabric with gold brocades and a green tassel and band at the ends. As told in an ancient oriental apocryphal text after the Blessed Virgin’s death St. Thomas was carried by angels to the Mount of Olives; there he contemplated the Virgin while she was taken up into the Heaven, and received the gift of the belt in proof of the event. According to Prato medieval tradition the sacred belt was then entrusted to a priest and preserved by his descendants. After the first crusade, a Prato pilgrim of modest origins called Michele (Michael), fell in love with Maria, the daughter of an oriental priest and married her in secret, against her father’s wish and received as dowry the “Sacred Cincture” in a small basket made of rushes. After returning to Prato around 1141, Michele spoke to no one about the holy relic and only on his death bed (1172), he donated it to the provost of the nearby church of St. Stephen (The Duomo is the Cathedral of St. Stephen). The sacred Belt furthermore was considered the most valuable treasure of the entire city, so much so that its public display was established by the bylaws of Commune, which still today has in custody a set of the keys required to take it out of the altar.
The belt of green camel hair material is displayed inside a gold and glass reliquary container from the Donatello pulpit on the exterior of the Cathedral during a special mass, the rest of which takes place inside the Duomo. The Bishop holds it up for public view in three directions, three times. The belt has both civic and religious importance to the commune of Prato, therefore the ceremony requires the participation of two authorities, and their numerous representatives; one civic (the Mayor) and one religious (the Bishop). While the religious authorities perform a mass inside the Duomo, there is a civic procession (Parade, as we Americans call it) with drummers, many, many, flag throwers, and trumpets that walk throughout the city to the Duomo. Once they arrive in front of the Duomo, they perform their specialty.
Here are a few pictures of what they do.