Sunday, November 26, 2006

For Gawain

Maso di Banco, The Virgin gives her belt to S.Thomas.
Painting on wood, c. 1330, Staatliche Museen, Gemaelde Galerie, Berlin.

Why should the Virgin do such a thing ?
Thomas means "abyss" and "double". Others say it means "division". It is said to mean abyss because he entered the dephts of divinity when Christ answered his question saying I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. It is said to mean double because he knew in two ways the Resurection of the Lord, by seeing and by touching. It is said to mean division because he separated his spirit from the world.
Prosperus wrote in De Vita Contemplativa "to love God is to conceive in the spirit a desire for the vision of God, a hatred towards sin and the world." Some others still add that Thomas means theos, which is God, and meus, as if it would be my God,theos meus.

Now the Virigin:
She could simply give him her belt as a divine ladder to heaven.
But something more can be looked for in the apocripha.
The Gospel of Thomas reads, near the end:
112 Jesus said,Woe to the flesh that depends on the soul; woe to the soul that depends on the flesh.
113 His disciples said to him, When will the kingdom come ?
Jesus said, it will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying 'here it is' or 'there it is'. Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.
114 Simon Peter said to them, let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.
Jesus said, I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males.
For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.

Now may be we can amplify the symbolic meaning of the gesture in the painting: Thomas is helped to become a woman at the same time that the woman is becoming or has already become a man. Mary the Virgin could be seen as the compassive and loving face of God, the number 4 in the divine unity to be contemplated. No doubt women played significant roles in early christianity and there is in medieval themes a special attention to them, through the cult of Mary, the Virgin mother of God.
Those are also the times ( medieval, I mean, where court poetry flourished and with Dante and others, Les Fidèles d'Amour, such themes were vastly elaborated ).
I don't rule out any alchemical meaning either for many texts refer to the Virgin Mary as the philosophical stone.

For the apocripha, read: The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. Brill, London,1996
For Dante and others, Denis de Rougemont, L'amour et l'occident,ed. Plon, 1972 ( this book being an old classic )
For alchemy, C.G.Jung, Psychologie und Alchemie, ed. Rascher, 1952
And to complete your knowledge read the comments by Gawain, illuminating, as always.


Sir G said...

Sweet Yvette

you have been doing such beautiful things here... now i see what I have been missing by staying away from the internet...

this is a fascinating subject (and a very beautiful painting); i don't believe i have ever seen this subject anywhere before. indeed, why would the virgin give st thomas her belt?

the first thought that came to my mind was to wonder whether this st thomas was in fact st thomas the apostle. i think the painting predates st thomas villanova (my patron saint), but there have been others:

* Thomas of Maurienne or Thomas of Farfa (died 720)
* Thomas of Antioch (died 782)
* Thomas Becket (died 1170)
* Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
* Thomas Cantilupe, or Thomas of Hereford (died 1282)
* Thomas of Dover or Thomas Hales (died 1295)

(and here are a few post-dating the painting:

* Thomas of Villanova (1488-1455)
* Thomas More (1478-1535)
* Thomas Danki (died 1597)
* Thomas Kozaki (died 1597)
* Thomas Garnet (died 1608)
* Thomas Dien (died 1838)
* Thomas De (died 1839)
* Thomas Du (died 1839)


By googling the question (I wish there were a dusty library instead for me to peruse here in CM), i came up with the following:

"St. Thomas (apostle), his nickname is Doubting Thomas. His incredulity showed on a number of occasions. First, Thomas refused to believe in Christ's Resurrection, and Christ came to him and asked to touch him and his wounds, and to believe (John 20-24-29); then Thomas doubted the Assumption of the Virgin, and the Virgin undid her belt and let it fall into the hands of the doubting disciple. "

so there you have it, the belt is the Virgin equivalent of Christ's wounds: St Thomas is allowed the unique privilege of fingering some very private parts of divine personages... :)

i can't help feeling a little disappointed by this story. though I do not doubt that this in fact is what the painter intended here, like you, I really wish there were a deeper, more spiritual meaning. for instance: that st thomas is in some special relationship to virginity, to purity, to faith. indeed, i find something very pure and idealistic about possessing and expressing doubt, do you not?

i too have spent some time meditating on the meaning of Thomas -- which probably comes from Arameic, meaning twin (or else -- divided). but now I conclude that all of us are divided and St Thomas in this sense is no symbol of Thomases -- but all men.

the thing I like about St Thomas the apostle is that he went furthest -- to India. when the portuguese arrived in Goa they discovered the old Thomian christians there. it is a fascinating story, have you heard it?

and i like his doubt. perhaps i like his doubt most. :)

thank you. what a beautiful picture and what a wonderful post.

Sir G said...

Hello Yevette:

A little more googling and the mystery is solved:


by Lucia Cristi

According to tradition, the Sacred Belt of the Virgin Mary - a piece of green woollen fabric, approximately 90 centimetres long, with little strings at the ends to tie it up - would be identified with the belt that Mary had given to St. Thomas on her ascending into Heaven.

The legend - already consolidated in the Thirteenth century - established that this relic was brought to Prato around 1141 by a merchant called Michael, who got married in Jerusalem and was given it as a dowry by the spouse's mother.Once he was back to his homeland, Michael preserved it secretly for years until the point of death, approximately in 1172, when he gave it to the Parish Church of St. Stephen that still preserves it.

The Sacred Belt was recognised as a holy relic by the ecclesiastical authorities. Therefore, it became an object of veneration and cult, whose fame soon crossed the walls of the town, attracting believers and pilgrims from distant towns and lands.

Among the many devotees, there are sovereigns such as Louis II of Angevin, king of Sicily and Jerusalem, who came to Prato for political reasons and paid homage to the Virgin Mary of the Sacred Belt, princes like Francis Gonzaga and distinguished persons such as Matthew d'Humières, ambassador of Charles VI, who applied for a special permission - that was granted by the Florentine Signoria - just to see the precious relic. The above mentioned personalities were all guests of Francesco di Marco Datini and stayed at his residence.
Being a sacred object with miraculous powers as well as the heart of the town devotion and public spirit, the Belt helped the local clergy to enhance its prestige and independence towards the Bishop of Pistoia, whose diocese included Prato, and was used also to develop the town identity towards strangers.

The attempt to steal it - occurred in 1312 and ended tragically with the cruel public execution of Giovanni di Ser Landetto from Pistoia called Musciattino that, as it seemed, wanted to purloin the relic to sell it to the Commune of Florence - clearly gives evidence of the civil importance of the Belt.

Its theft would have diminished the town prestige and specificity. Worth mentioning are the origin of the thief and the destination of the relic, that is to say the two powerful and close enemies: Pistoia and Florence.

Not only a symbol of the town religiousness, the relic of the Virgin Mary was a clear testimony of the common aspiration to share a collective identity. This is the reason why the Belt managed to involve into its history not only the local Church and the popular feeling but also the civil town authorities.

The town authorities - in order to preserve the Sacred Belt, considered as a common patrimony by the whole town - issued precise dispositions and strict laws for its custody, establishing methods of access to the relic that provided for the presence of both town clergy and magistrates. After the attempt to steal the relic, one provided with the extension of the Parish Church and the construction of a special chapel in order to safeguard the Belt.

Even the ceremony of its exhibition to believers during the September fair - taking place on 8th of the month, dedicated to the celebration of the nativity of the Virgin Mary and representing the climax of the entire feast - was accurately regulated by town Statutes."

So, there, now we know. :)

I love the story of the near-theft of the relic. What a story.

Sir G said...

the story is cited here:

and contains some wonderful (if a little too small) reproductions from a fresco cycle which illustrates the story.

Yvette Centeno said...

Thank you, dear friend.
I very much like the story, told in the LEGENDA AUREA, which I posted in Portuguese to present the edition now available to normal readers. There the life and doings of the apostle are told, together with his travel and stay in India.
And what I most like in the symbolism of his name is precisely the doubt.
In the Legenda, as you cannot read Portuguese, it is said:his name means doubt (division ) and also double: because having doubted he acquired the double knowledge that others didn't, " he saw and he touched ".

Yvette Centeno said...

There is something in this legend that "humanizes" divinity: the power of the senses are not abolished: Jesus lets Thomas touch his wound, Mary lets Thomas touch her belt, which is perhaps better described as rope, not to hang (if the senses were condemned) but to climb, that is, to "ascend" to heaven, as she herself did.
The eyes for a vision, the hands
for the material reality which is ours in the world that was given to us by that NATURA NATURANS Spinoza spoke about...

Sir G said...

Sweet Yvette, I will work on my Portuguese, I promise, and what better place to do it than your blog?

I had to come back to look at this beautiful painting.

As you know, I am an atheist; and, fourther, so long away from Europe... the result is that I no longer automatically associate people with aureolas with selfless love. Indeed, I wonder whether such a thing exists?

So this image -- a woman imperiously giving a rope to a man who grovels at her feet brings very different associations to my mind.

And they are not necessarily as unpleasant as another might think. It is a very deep thought indeed.

In any case, for me, this picture, and your post, and your friendship are indeed a rope with which to climb up.

I thank you a million times.

Sir G said...

btw, the painters name, Maso, is short for Tomaso. he was (just possibly) painting his patron-saint and therefore, vicariously, himself.

Yvette Centeno said...

more to think about:
the "black" mandorla, something unusual
the rope as an element also used to measure and Thomas was said to be an architect
the rope as an umbilical cord mother-to child
heaven- to earth
mother- earth to all living creatures in the universe.

Sir G said...

and something else: was the mandorla originally black? it sets out the virginal white beautifully; but could it originally have been silver and discolored with time? or is it the sky -- the night?

Sir G said...

the web gallery of art ( has 2 more works by Maso di Bianco, both from Santa Croce in Florence; and, boy, are they good. i will go and look for more. what a discovery.

Yvette Centeno said...

I see it as the darkness that was previous to creation.
Light came out of this darkness,and then everything else, as in Genesis, the more I think about it the more the meaning seems to be one of "link" more than that of division.
I'll follow your search...

Rudy Carrera said...

Dear Yvette;

I come from Gawain's site. I had no idea you had a blog as well. It's quite a lovely, warm read!

Yvette Centeno said...

Hello Rudy, I couldn't open your page, I am not the expert you all are with blogging as I have seen through Gawain.
I'm developping the idea of this black colour, posting on Hildegarda de Bingen Visions, the second one where she explains her cosmological mystical conception of the world
Not yet finished, but soon.I told Gawain about it,in case he wants to blog it immediately. The image is beautiful.