Some stitches in time with the Mother of God

By Editor

Jesus’ mother may well have been a good seamstress

One of the things my mother tried to teach me was how to sew. We had an old Pfaff sewing machine and Mom used it (and a new Singer later) to make dresses, skirts and tops. All I ever seemed to make on it were tangled bobbins. To this day, I can’t do more than repair a torn seam or replace a button.

Perhaps I should have asked for the Blessed Virgin’s help.

Great seamstress

It turns out that Jesus’ mother was most likely a great seamstress. This week, on Aug. 31, the Eastern Orthodox churches mark a feast called the Placing of the Sash of the Most Holy Virgin. This is a relic of Mary — something that tradition says belonged to Mary.

Last fall, 2011, this relic, which is normally kept at the Greek monastery on Mount Athos, toured Russia. Thousands viewed this piece of cloth in its silver and enamel reliquary, including then-Russian prime minister Vladamir Putin.

The sash — also called the cincture of Mary — is made of camel’s hair and said to have been woven by Mary herself to wear around her waist. According to tradition, when Mary’s life ended and she was assumed into heaven, the apostle Thomas was not present. Upon his return, he refused to believe that Mary had been assumed into heaven and her tomb was opened. Inside they found only roses and lilies. Mary then appeared to Thomas and gave him her belt. The belt later came into the possession of St. Helen, mother of the Emperor Constantine and was kept in Jerusalem at first and then at Constantinople by the fourth century.

About 500 years later, the belt — now in a sealed casket — came into the possession of Emperor Leo VI the Wise, the Byzantine emperor. When his wife, the Empress Zoe, fell ill, she had a vision that Mary’s belt would heal her. It was placed upon the empress and she became well. (This event is what the feast of “the placing of the cincture or belt” commemorates.)

The current relic is not as plain as the original, since it’s embroidered with gold. The embroidery is the work of the Empress Zoe. For some reason, the empress cut the belt into three pieces. It is not clear from news reports if all three are in the Mount Athos reliquary.

Green girdle

There is also something called the Girdle of the Virgin Mary, also made of camel’s hair and green in color, located in Prato, Italy. The girdle has been kept there in a special chapel in the Cathedral of St. Stephen since the 14th century, after arriving from Constantinople. It is called the Sacra Cintola and is displayed five times a year, including on Aug. 15 and Mary’s birthday, Sept. 8. There is even a special circular pulpit built into the corner of the church, designed by the artist Donatello, from which to display the relic to the crowds outside.

Now neither of these belts are the only work of needlecraft attributed to the Blessed Virgin. There is also the tunic of Christ, which the Gospel of John tells us was seamless (John 19). At the crucifixion, this is the garment that was not divided, but won in a dice game. Tradition holds that this garment was made for Jesus by Mary, since it was traditional for a mother to weave such a garment for her son at that time.

Today, this tunic is said to reside in the Cathedral of St. Peter in Trier, Germany. Early in 2012, it was put on display in the cathedral, for only the fourth time in the last century.

Weaving the veil

Mary seems to have learned to sew and weave at a young age. While not recorded in the Gospels, tradition says that the child Mary spent much of her youth serving and learning in the Temple at Jerusalem. This tradition largely comes to us from a non-canonical source called the protoevangelium of James. This book — not accepted as divine revelation by the church — says that Mary, in the year Zechariah went mute after seeing the angel Gabriel, was chosen by the Temple priests as one of the young virgins to make that year’s veil for the Holy of Holies. To Mary fell the lot of weaving the purple and scarlet silk used in the veil.

While the young girl Mary spent a lot of time in the Temple, she probably learned her sewing skills — at least the basics — from her mother, St. Anne. It was a mother’s job to instruct her daughter in the skills of being a wife. Today, St. Anne is the patron of seamstresses and lace makers. She shares a July 26 feast day with her husband, St. Joachim.

By the way, while I didn’t learn to sew, I did learn to embroider. Perhaps I can credit mastering that skill to St. Clare of Assisi, who is the patron of embroiderers.

Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; salveregina.info; newworldencyclopedia.org; “The Deposition of the Precious Sash — Cincture — of our Most Holy Lady Theotokos” at serfs.org; Marian relics at sites.tufts.edu; the Orthodox Church in American at oca.org; StJosephMelkiteCatholicChurch.org; AsiaNews at asianews.it; pratotourism.it; ewtnnews.com.