restricted access Sewn Without a Needle: The Chasuble of St. Ildephonsus in the Milagros de Nuestra Señora
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Sewn Without a Needle:
The Chasuble of St. Ildephonsus in the Milagros de Nuestra Señora

In the thirteenth century, it was believed that the chasuble worn by St. Ildephonsus, and portrayed in Gonzalo de Berceo’s first miracle of the Virgin Mary, had been preserved in a chest along with other relics. Pilgrims from the period wishing to venerate the canonized Bishop of Toledo could journey to the Cathedral of Oviedo, where the chest containing his ecclesiastical vestment had purportedly been safeguarded from Muslim invaders. This belief is recorded by a well-known contemporary of Berceo, Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, who writes: “it is said that in this church is that glorious vestment that the Blessed Virgin bestowed on the great Bishop Ildephonsus”.1 Later in the same century, Juan Gil Zamora records the same tradition, portraying the cloth preserved at Oviedo as “those most sacred garments with which the Mother of God adorned the Saint”.2 According to a legend that was still current during the sixteenth century, attempts by past bishops of Oviedo to open the chest and contemplate its contents had been punished with ill fortune and ended in all manner of disasters, including cases of sudden [End Page 281] blindness. Descriptions by Jesuits who dared to open this “arca” refer to the cloth’s color as a celestial blue, although somewhat faded by time, and–like Berceo–insist that the delicate fabric bore no sign of stitching or thread that was discernible by human eyes (Devoto 276). In the pages that follow, I will consider the meaning of Ildephonsus’s seamless chasuble in the Milagros de Nuestra Señora, as it relates to the hagiographic representations of Mary, the medieval legend of Christ’s tunic, and the typology of Berceo’s introduction.

Written during the second half of the thirteenth century, Berceo’s collection of miracles begins with an allegory in which the poet-pilgrim enters a locus amoenus or garden paradise, complete with shady fruit trees, a clear flowing spring, fragrant flowers, and birds singing heavenly music. We are then told that this setting represents the attributes of the Virgin and the truth of the Gospels, revealed–as E. Michael Gerli has shown–through a typological understanding of the Old Testament. Deploying a favorite metaphor for exegesis, Berceo urges listeners to extract the interior kernel of meaning from its exterior husk. In doing so, they will find that his introduction to the miracles represents the pilgrimage of life and the arrival of the soul in the eternal Spring of the afterlife, “nuestra romería estonz la acabamos, / quando a Paraíso las almas enviamos” (st. 18cd).3 This redemption was brought about through Christ’s birth to the Virgin Mary, whom Berceo allegorizes in his introductory landscape. In medieval religious tradition, Mary and Jesus were known as the New Adam and New Eve who made possible the return journey of humankind, first expelled from the Garden of Eden as a consequence of Original Sin (24). According to this doctrine, the first man and woman disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, inviting toil and death into the world. Their sin inaugurated a persistent discord between divine and human wills, and an imperfect relationship between signifier and [End Page 282] signified that led to the Confusion of Tongues. Shamed by the realization of their nakedness, Eve made the first clothing to cover human bodies, and later experienced the first birth pangs in a locus eremus or forbidding wilderness that lay outside the garden. This symbolic connection between covering and inborn sin is implicated in the image of clothing being shed, in a restored poetic space that represents the eternally verdant, virginal Mother of God and the Incarnation, “descargué mi ropiella … Esti prado fue siempre verde en onestat, / ca nunca ovo mácula la su virginidat, / post partum et in partu fue virgin de verdat, / illesa incorrupta en su entegredat … Madre plena de gracia” (sts. 6c, 20, 46c).4 Through the birth of Christ to Mary, the Word of God was clothed in flesh, making possible human redemption and immortality. This theological context, as Jill Ross has recently put it, provides a...