|The Veil of Mary (Sancta Camisa) is an oblong piece of silk that Mary is reported to have worn during the Annunciation of Jesus’ birth by the angel Gabriel, or during the birth of Jesus.
King Charles the Bald gave the veil to the Chartres Cathedral in 876. His grandfather, Charlemagne, had received it as a gift from the Byzantine Empress Irene. When tested in the twentieth century, the cloth was shown to contain pollen from first century Palestine. This piece of cloth is closely tied to the history of both Chartres Cathedral and the town of Chartres.
In The Veil of Our Lady, French author Yves Delaporte explains that, “during the siege of Chartres by the Normands in 911 the relic acquired its notoriety and entered into history…” The bishop, in view of the combatants, displayed the tunic of the Virgin Mary to the townspeople. When they saw the venerated relic, the courage of the Christian armies doubled, while the pagans were terrified… Everyone attributed the victory to the immediate help and intercession of the Blessed Virgin.
The Veil of Mary was placed with other relics in a reliquary around the year 1,000. This was a sealed wooden trunk that was gold plated. It was usually on the high altar in the eastern sanctuary. People believed that the veil was some type of a shirt. Pilgrims came to pray near the veil. Since it was thought to offer a type of divine protection, shirts of those going to war, and later shirts offered to the Queens of France who were about to give birth, were rubbed against it and then worn or kept by those seeking safety.
When much of the cathedral was severely damaged by fire in 1194, there was great fear that the Veil had been destroyed. At first, the people despaired because they believed that the precious relic had also burnt and therefore that Mary’s protection of the city was lost, but on the third day… a procession appeared with the relic safe, having apparently been taken by priests into the Carolingian crypt beneath the choir. The cardinal then declared that this was a sign from Mary that she desired a more magnificent church, and great enthusiasm was immediately aroused for the reconstruction.
During the French Revolution, the Veil was cut in pieces. Some were later returned to the cathedral. Today, two of these pieces are displayed. The larger piece, enclosed in a 19th century reliquary, can be seen in a chapel on the north side of the choir ambulatory. A smaller piece is on display in the crypt.
While relics were not something I grew up with, and while as a Protestant most of my knowledge about Mary came from annual readings of the Christmas passages, the idea of being close to something that might have touched Jesus captured my imagination. Praying near the Veil has taken on great meaning to me. Some of my most meaningful times of prayers for my family have happened while sitting on one of the chairs in front of the Veil Chapel. I hope you will seek out the Veil of Mary with an open mind and heart. If you do, you will be joining the throngs of pilgrims who have come to Chartres before you.