MARY’S BELT

Here is a 16th century fresco image from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos:

As you see, it has no inscription.  If you are clever, you might recognize the traditional depictions of the apostles Peter and Paul in the foreground, but beyond that this image may mystify you.  Who is the little fellow at upper left, and what is he holding?  Well, it is another one of those relic stories so common in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

The little fellow in the sky at upper left is the Apostle Thomas.  According to one variant of tradition, when the time came for Mary, mother of Jesus, to die, she requested to see the Twelve Apostles.  All of them arrived — brought on clouds in the sky — except Thomas, who was busy preaching in far-off India.  Thomas was only able to set off three days after her “dormition,” her “falling asleep,” the euphemistic term for her death.

Now it happened that while Thomas was on his way to Mary’s death — riding his “cloud taxi” — Mary had ascended to heaven.  She appeared to Thomas and dropped her belt down to him.

When Thomas arrived at the tomb, he showed the belt the ascended Mary had given him to the other apostles.  And that is what we see in this Athos fresco — Thomas, having arrived in his cloud at left, holds out the belt of Mary, showing it to the other apostles.  Mary’s closed tomb is in the foreground.  And of course the tale continues that when the apostles opened the tomb, it was empty — verifying the tale of Thomas that Mary had ascended to heaven.

In other variants of the tale, Thomas was already at the tomb of Mary when she dropped her belt down to him from heaven.  And yet another variant merely says the belt was given to two widows in Jerusalem before Mary’s “dormition.”

Now interestingly, the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos claims to have the belt Mary gave to Thomas.  But one need not go that far.  The Italian town of Prato — just a bit north of Florence — also has what is claimed to be the belt Mary gave to Thomas, kept in the Cathedral.  That is, unless you prefer to see as authentic the segment of the belt said to be kept by the Syriac Orthodox Church at the Church of the Holy Belt in Homs, Syria.  Other places have also claimed to have the relic.  But as we know, relics were a big business in byzantine and medieval times, able to draw many pilgrims and their money to whatever place claimed to own them.  And the enterprising market easily provided what the customer wanted, in the days before carbon dating and DNA testing.

In any case, the belt was supposedly taken to Constantinople in the 5th century, and this Russian icon depicts its placing in the Church of the Khalkoprateia there.  The vyaz inscription at the top says:

ПОЛОЖЕНИЕ ЧЕСТНАГО ПОЯСЯ ПРЕЧИСТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ В ХАЛКОПРAТIИ
POLOZENIE CHESTNAGO POYASYA PRECHISTUIYA BOGORODITSUI V KHALKOPRATIY

“Placing of the Honorable Belt of the Most Pure Mother of God in the Khalkoprateia.”

Later it was supposedly taken to Mount Athos, where one part of it was said to be kept in a cross and the other part in a reliquary (kibotos).

Now as one can tell, these old traditions are confused and contradictory, and certainly should not be taken as literal history, but rather seen as a part of all the fables and tales of commonly false relics that were a standard part of Christian belief and devotion — whether in the “Orthodox” East or Catholic West — in earlier times.

Here is a 16th century painting by the Venetian artist Palma il Vecchio (c. 1480-1528) — Palma the Elder –, showing a “Western” version of the legend of the giving of the belt of Mary (or if you prefer a fancier term, the “Holy Cincture”).  It used to be called the “Holy Girdle,” but the pictures that raised in the mind were too peculiar for that term to be used in modern times.

 

 

 

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