Mary’s assumption into heaven meant that she left behind no physical body on earth. Her cult developed slowly in late antiquity and the early middles ages because there were no bodily remains for her cult to focus around. In the Christian East, her cult centered on images and clothing relics, but these had not yet made their way into Western Europe. Mary’s relics gained prominence in the twelfth century. Clothing relics,such as veils, shrouds, and tunics, as well as cloth carrying traces of breast milk and birth fluids were the primary relics attributed to Mary. Mary is often associated with clothing and sewing, both in these relics and in symbolic descriptions of her role in the Bible.
In a Hymn of Paradise, Mary is described as weaving a new garment for fallen Adam, and in this way undoing the harm caused by the first woman, Eve. The image of the Virgin sewing is symbolic of her clothing her son Jesus in flesh. Mary gave the divine a bodily form in which to cloth itself on earth. The story of the garment Mary made for Jesus as an infant that miraculously grew as he did, and which he wore his entire life, is reminiscent of this clothing-as-flesh symbolism that surrounds Mary. A statue of Mary sewing is included in Chartres Cathedral where her veil is venerated.
The Virgin sewing at Chartres
The Veil of the Virgin, or Sancta camisia in Chartres
This silk relic kept at Chartres is believed to have been worn by Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. Byzantine Empress Irene of Constantinople sent it as a gift to Charlemagne, whose grandson Charles the Bald donated it t Chartres Cathedral in 876. The presence of the Holy Cloak began the cult of the Virgin at that site, although Chartres was reportedly originally a site dedicated to a pregnant pagan virgin. The Veil of the Virgin is associated with many medieval miracles at Chartres. Through the sancta camisia, Mary is said to have spared Chartres from the invasion of Rollo army. The miracles affected by the holy tunic are often associated with protection of her believers.
During a fire in 1145 the church burnt down. A few clerics fled from the flames carrying the shroud into the crypt. They emerged safely after three days, having been sustained miraculously by the intercession of the Virgin. This was declared a miracle by a papal legate, and interpreted as a sign that the Virgin wished for a new and grander church to built for her veneration, and so the cathedral as it currently stands was built. The cathedral now has stained glass and sculpture that heavily emphasizes the life of the Virgin, and the Sancta camisia now is housed in a reliquary.
The Veil of the Virgin gained its sanctity through touching Mary’s body. It was not necessary for there to be any residual breast milk for the tunic to have such power. There were even stories of shirts gaining protective power by touching the chasse of the tunic of the Virgin.
The Veil of the Virgin in its Reliquary
The church at Autun also claimed to have the Veil of the Virgin in the twelfth century, and featured a walnut statue of the Virgin enthroned with a back aperture that might have been intended to hold this relic.
The Shrine to the Virgin at Aachen
Aachen Cathedral also claims to have a shroud of the Virgin, as well as the swaddling clothes worn by Jesus as an infant, the loincloth worn by him on the cross, and the cloth on which John the Baptist’s head was laid after his beheading. These Four Great Relics of Aachen are housed in one collective reliquary, the Shrine to the Virgin. This gold reliquary was completed in 1238 and has architectural forms including gables and a roof. In the mid-14th century it became custom to show the Four Relics every seven years, and this is still practiced.
The Marian Robe at Aachen
The Shrine of the Virgin at Aachen, 1238
The Holy Girdle, Sacra cintola
The Holy Girdle is a camel hair belt believed to have been made and worn by Mary. She supposedly dropped it as a gift for the apostles to remind of her earthly presence as she ascended into heaven. Mary’s Girdle was originally believed to be held in the chuch of Chalcoprateia in Constantinople, but by the late Middle Ages had been translated to Westminster Abbey, where it became a popular object of veneration. It is supposedly held now in Prato, where Angiolo Gaddid painted a fresco cycle depicting the history of the girdle.
The Holy Belt Reliquary, open
The Pope with Holy Belt at Prato