The Church celebrates the Placing of the Cincture (Sash) of the Most Holy Theotokos on September 13. What is this holiday devoted to? What do we know about it and where is the sacred object now?
It is believed that the Sash of Our Lady was handed over to Apostle Thomas by the Blessed Virgin during her glorious ascent to the Heaven. Nobody knows exactly where the relic was kept during the next centuries: some say that Thomas took the precious gift with him to India, others say that it was preserved by Christians in Jerusalem, and others suggest other versions. The history of Christian relics is very entangled: sacred things sometimes disappear for a long time, and then reappear in an unexpected place. Over time, these stories can become increasingly detailed and it can be tricky to separate truth from fiction. Luckily, there are historical records, too. Let’s take a closer look at them.
The Cincture at the Church of the Chalke Gate. The first data concerning the Cincture of the Mother of God recorded in the sources date back to the 10th century. It is a story in the Menology of Basil II (a Byzantine illustrated manuscript with the lives of saints) and the Synaxarion of the Church of Constantinople (a liturgical compendium containing the lives of saints, stories of holidays, and prescriptions). Both stories are somewhat different in detail. According to the Synaxarion, the relic was in the Asia Minor town of Zile until Emperor Justin II (565-578) moved it to Constantinople. The Menology reports that it was kept by Christian widows of Jerusalem, arrived in Constantinople as early as under Emperor Arcadius (395-408) and was placed in a rich casket of one of the main churches in honor of the Virgin near the copper market of the Chalke Gate (Greek: Χαλκός – “copper”, πράττω – “to work”). It wasn’t for no reason that Constantinople was not called the Fortress of the Mother of God by the Byzantines, because in addition to the numerous icons of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Cincture, the church in Blachernae also stored the Robe of the Mother of God.
Miracle of Zoe. The Sash of the Virgin Mary lay in the box untouched for several centuries and was rediscovered during the reign of Emperor Leo VI (886-912). His fourth “wife” Zoe Karbonopsina was possessed with an evil spirit. However, it was revealed to her in a dream that she would be cured by the Cincture of the Virgin Mary. The emperor opened the sacred box, and the future Patriarch Euthymius laid the sacred thing on Zoe’s head and the latter was healed. Zoe showed her gratitude for the miracle by adorning the Cincture with gold threads. The feast of the double placing of the Cincture became even more solemn. Shortly afterwards, the relic was divided for the first time.
The Georgian Part of the Cincture. The Byzantine Emperor Romanos III (1028-1034), having made peace with Georgia, decided to seal the alliance by giving his niece Helena over to the Georgian king Bagrat IV. Helena, who had also been healed by the holy relic, asked the emperor to take a part of the relic with her. That was why the Cincture was divided. This part of the sacred object was presented to the Russian Emperor Alexander I in the 19th century, when Georgia, fearing a Turkish invasion, became part of the Russian Empire. But after decorating the ark that contained the Cincture with gems, Alexander I returned it to Georgian Christians. The Cincture is currently preserved in the Church of Blachernae in Zugdidi.
The Syrian Part of the Cincture. When crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204, the relic was divided into several parts again. The parts were taken to Europe, Cyprus, and Syria. An ancient manuscript written in Aramaic was discovered in 1953 in the monastery in Mardin (Turkey). Upon reading the manuscript, it was found out that one of the churches of Homs, Syria, stored a part of the Cincture of the Most Holy Mother of God. The researchers found a stone mortar beneath the altar under a stone slab at the specified place. There was a box with a piece of the Holy Cincture made of camel’s wool and embroidered with gold. The relic is still available for veneration today. According to another version, this part of the Cincture was brought to Syria from India, where the Apostle Thomas had taken it to.
The Vatopedi Monastery stores the largest part of the Cincture. The Byzantines liked to take the relic with them to various military campaigns. It was seized by the Bulgarians in one of the battles but after a while it was intercepted by the Serbs and presented to the Monastery of Vatopedi. The Cincture is known for its miracles and healings to this day.
Symbolically, the date of the observance of the Placing of the Cincture falls on the last day of the church year as though it concludes the Feast of the Dormition, with which the Cincture is associated. Thus, the church year ends with the remembrance of the Virgin Mary and also starts with the Feast of the Nativity of the Ever-Virgin, which emphasizes the importance of the humble intercession of the Virgin Mary, whose consent to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ was the beginning of our salvation.