The Sacred Belt of Our Lady (Cathedral of Prato, Italy)

Cathedrals in Europe are often home to precious relics of Christendom that are enshrined and displayed with great solemnity. In the Cathedral of St. Stephen in Prato near Florence is kept a famous relic known as the belt of Our Lady. Each year the relic is shown 5 times per year: Christmas, Easter, May 1st, August 15th, and September 8th, the feast oaf the Nativity of Our Lady.  

On the 8th of September celebration the relic is carried in procession outside the cathedral for a special blessing of the faithful from an outdoor pulpit designed by Donatello. This ceremony is called the corteggio storico (historical procession) — a tradition held since the 13th century and a true sight to behold.  

The story of the relic originates from an ancient legend from the 5th-6th century, which narrates how the Blessed Mother, at the moment of her Assumption, consigned to the Apostle St. Thomas her own belt. This devotion is also known in the East. In the Byzantine tradition, there is a feast commemorating the placing of the cincture (sash) of the Most Holy Theotokos in the Church of the Virgin in Halkoprateia-Constantinople - commemorated on August 31.

The story is taken up and embellished by some local histories, consolidated in the thirteenth century, according to which the belt was handed over to a priest in Jerusalem, and carefully handed down by his heirs for over a millennium. Only around the year 1141 would the sacred girdle pass to Michele, a young pilgrim from Prato, as a nuptial gift from Maria, a girl from Jerusalem whom he married in secret; the daughter of an oriental rite priest who was heir to the relic.

The relic is kept enshrined in a beautiful altar in a side chapel in the rear of the Cathedral of Prato, seen below. Pilgrims flock from all over the region and the Catholic world to pray and honor Our Lady at this sacred site. Although the relic is not well-known in North America, it has been revered for centuries by the Tuscan inhabitants of Florence and its environs in the old Papal States.  

Back in Prato, Michele kept the sacred girdle in secret, and only on his deathbed, around 1172, did he give it to the parish church of Santo Stefano (the current cathedral). Tradition recalls innumerable prodigious events linked to the relic, with veneration already documented before the middle of the thirteenth century. Indeed, the belt was immediately considered the most precious treasure of the city. So many came to see it that its public showings inside and outside the cathedral were regulated by the statutes of the municipality, which was responsible - and still is today - for keeping in their custody one of the keys necessary to extract the relic from its guarded location inside the altar. 

Over the centuries saints and popes have visited here, including St. Francis of Assisi, St. Bernard, Pius VII, Pius IX, and Pope John Paul II. This very unique relic is made of ancient goat skin and is light green in color, a sign and testimony of hope and the life and presence of Our Lady. May it inspire others to lead a life of holiness and devotion to the Mother of God. 

I pray some choice readers will one day be privileged to visit here and venerate this precious piece of Christian history. In the words of Belloc, "...legend and myth testify to the truth of tradition." Like all their kind, relics such as this are rooted in real history, formed by layers and layers of accumulated stories passed on through the centuries, revealing important kernels of historic truth. 


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