This August 15th I was privilege to the display of one of the most sacred relics in Catholic tradition, the sacred belt (Sacra Cintola) of the Virgin Mary in Prato. This display or “ostensione” takes place only five times a year, on Christmas, Easter, May 1st, August 15th (The Assumption of the Virgin), and September 8th (Nativity of the Virgin). This last is the most important of the displays, with large crowds in conjunction with further festivities that last three days. The August 15th event is smaller, in part because many city-dwellers go to the beach for “Ferragosto”, although there were plenty of Pratesi in attendence.
The belt of green camel hair material is displayed inside a gold and glass reliquary container from the 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. This belt is believed to be that passed from the Virgin Mary to San Tommaso during her Ascention to heaven. It was brought to Prato by a citizen of Prato from Jerusalem in the 12th century, and has both civic and religious importance. For this reason, 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 with drummers and trumpets that make their way through the city to the Duomo, where they are welcomed at the door. The reliquary box that holds the belt is unlocked through the use of two keys, one for each authority.