The Holy Girdle (known as the “Sacra Cintola” or the “Sacro Cingolo” in Italian) is the most beloved and prized relic belonging to the city of Prato; it’s a green girdle with golden threads woven in and some small tassels, said to have belonged to the Virgin Mary.
It is held in the eponymous chapel of the Cathedral and displayed in public on five separate occasions each year: Christmas, Easter, May 1, August 15 (Ferragosto) and at the end of the historic parade on September 8. During this final date, which coincides with the Nativity of the Virgin, costumed groups move through the city streets to eventually arrive in piazza Duomo, where the lay and religious orders symbolically meet (represented by three keys, two of which belong to the Municipality and one to the Diocese). These keys are used to open the treasure chest that contains the precious relic. The exhibition is presided over by the Bishop from the external pulpit of the Cathedral; a touching moment, it’s the culmination of the celebrations.
A bit of historical-mythical background: the girdle, which was brought here from the Holy Land by a young Pratese man in 1141 after an adventure at sea, was donated to the city upon his death. Legend has it that it was delivered by the Madonna herself to Saint Thomas at the moment of her Assumption to Heaven. At the time, he was said to have then given it to a priest. The priest’s descendants passed it down over generations until it landed in the hands of the Pratese merchant Michele Dagomari, who fell in love with one of the priest’s descendants while on a pilgrimage toward Jerusalem; for them it was used as a wedding gift.
Once he returned home in 1141, Michele guarded it closely and then donated it to the parish church of Santo Stefano (1171) upon his death.
The fame and mystery surrounding the belt’s miracles quickly picked up momentum; this soon gave rise to legendary stories of thefts in which reality and fantasy meet. One of the most widely recounted stories is that of Giovanni di ser Laudetto, better known as Musciattino, who stole the relic in 1312. However, when he left Prato, he got lost in the fog of the surrounding countryside and, without realizing it, ended up back where he started. Certain that he’d arrived in Pistoia, he shouted at the gates of the city: "Open up, Pistoiesi: I have the Cintola de Pratesi” (the Pratese people’s belt). The thief was captured and before his execution his right hand was cut off. According to legend, the angry mob hurled the severed limb towards the church, leaving a blood-stain in the shape of a hand on a cathedral stone. You can still see it today on the marble stone of the upper left corner of the door jamb on the right side of the Cathedral.