The Girdle of Saint Thomas

So, you’ve heard of the whole Doubting Thomas episode? You know, that story where Saint Thomas doubts the other apostles in which they insist that Jesus appeared to them, even though Jesus had clearly just died. And Saint Thomas dismisses them, saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

And then Jesus comes to St. Thomas and gives him precisely that opportunity???

Yeah! It’s a super famous story which is related in the Gospel of John. Take a look, if you need a refresher!

NABRE

John 20

24Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” 26Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

But did you know about the story of the Girdle of Saint Thomas???

So, it’s not a story from the gospel. At all. In fact, you would be better calling it a legend. You are free to believe in it — or not. But it’s a cute story of Saint Thomas and the Virgin Mary with a pretty awesome art tradition, and since it’s the official feast day of Saint Thomas, I figured I would share it!

As the story goes!

When Mary was assumed into Heaven in the Assumption of Mary, most of the other apostles were with her… except for St. Thomas, who had gone to evangelize in the East and was too far away from her. So, knowing the skeptical nature of St. Thomas (he is remembered as the Doubting Thomas, after all!) she appeared to him personally. Then, to give him some physical evidence that he really did see her being assumed into Heaven, she dropped her belt, or girdle, to him.

Here’s a picture depicting the event!

Descent of Mary's Girdle to the Apostle Thomas, by Maso di Banco
Descent of Mary’s Girdle to the Apostle Thomas, by Maso di Banco, c. 1337-39. Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany.

In the picture, the sky is gilded in gold, indicating a heavenly presence. Four angels support the Virgin Mary, who is clothed in a white dress which is lined in gold embroidery, to symbolize both her purity and queenly nature. In her right hand, she holds a golden girdle which she is about to drop into the hands of Saint Thomas, who is kneeling down with outstretched arms, ready to receive this gift of hers.

So, if Saint Thomas truly received this gift, then… where is it? After all, the Church is known for trying to keep track of its relics from the saints!

The answer? While there are a number of places that claim to have this girdle, it seems as if the original girdle seems to be in the Cappella del Sacro Cingolo in Prato Cathedral, which is in Prato, Italy in the Tuscany region. The relic is still displayed five times a year, in case you want to see it! Check out here for the official page about it from the city of Prato!

Now, this was a really popular legend in the 14th century, and many artists chose to depict this scene. However, as the Reformation happened, many of these fantastic stories got lost to history and religious artists chose not to depict this event anymore. After all, if it wasn’t in the Bible, why bother telling this story?

Mind you, occasionally you’ll see a Mary with a belt in her hand in pictures of her Assumption. But, the image is not something that we visually recognize anymore.

Yet, even though we might not recognize it as much, it is still a tradition that is currently being celebrated in the Church. And why not? It is a lovely story!

And so, if you ever see the Virgin Mary holding belt in some art, remember! It is a reminder of her great love and her consideration of others so that we remember that she is kind enough to even care for the Doubting Thomas so that he has no reason to doubt anymore!

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of three, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer

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