the footsteps of the Marys in France
the ‘Saint Marys of the Sea’, is a small fishing village
located on the French Mediterranean coast. Once every year, it
transforms into a cult centre, as people come here in the belief
that Mary Magdalene and her closest friends and family came to
France. Legend… or fact?
excavations and local legends indicate that the site of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
has been venerated as a holy place from prehistoric times; it
retained its holiness with the Celts, Romans and Christians. In
Celtic times, the town had a holy spring and was known as Oppidum
Priscum Ra. Worship to the triple water deity Matres co-existed
with and was later superseded by Roman temples dedicated to Artemis,
Cybele, Isis and Mithras. As early as 542 AD, the village was
known as Saintes-Maries-de-la-Barque; in 1838, it received its
present name: the Saint Maries of the Sea. That is the official
and dry history of the town… whose legends are far more
interesting, and important.
The legend states that Mary Salome, Mary Jacob and several other
disciples – many of them present at the Crucifixion of Christ
– were forced, in ca. 45 AD, to flee the Holy Land by boat.
Mary Salome was the mother of James, son of Zebedee; Mary Jacob
the sister or cousin of the Virgin Mary. Following a perilous
journey, their boat – equipped without sail and therefore
destined to perish at sea – miraculously crossed the Mediterranean
Sea, coming ashore near Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, where the passengers
disembarked. However important the two Maries are in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer,
most attention goes to a third passenger on this boat: Saint Sarah,
who is the object of an intense devotion by the gypsies.
lot – and a lot of nonsense – has been written about
the gypsies. As a minority group, they have often been avoided,
scorned, chased away, persecuted, killed or spoken ill of. To
a large extent, the gypsies are still seen as a mysterious people
and it is probably true to say that they are special in Europe
as they have largely held on to a nomadic lifestyle to this very
But it is their religion that some consider to be their biggest
enigma. Some have claimed the gypsies never reveal a single detail
about their belief. Some have claimed they worship Mary Magdalene
and that it is this reason why they annually gather here. Maybe…
What is true, is that the gypsies come to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
once a year. It is in the crypt of the church that we find the
actual centre of the gypsy devotion: a statue of Saint Sarah,
known to the gypsies as Sara-la-Kali, whose origin and identity
are for many people still a mystery. Several legends about who
she is nevertheless do exist.
One legend claims that the gypsies believe that Sarah was a powerful
local queen who welcomed the tired travellers from the Holy Land,
while other sources suggest she may have been an ancient pagan
goddess – a Black Madonna? – or a black Egyptian woman
that was the servant of Christ’s mother Mary. Christians
preferred to see her as an unexpected passenger on the boat.
The adapted legend goes that while the Romans set the boat adrift
in the Holy Land, Sarah apparently begged to be taken with them.
A miracle enabled her to reach the boat by walking on the water,
using Mary Salome’s cloak as a type of magical carpet to
cover the distance.
so-called “Pelerinage des Gitans”, or the Pilgrimage
of the Gypsies, occurs annually on May 24 and 25. The gypsies
look upon the festival as a time of religious worship as well
as a time to meet up with friends and relatives. For this occasion,
the town’s population swells to forty times its normal size
and becomes one big party along the beach.
On the afternoon of May 24, the statues of the two Marys, stored
in a wooden box in the upper chapel that is dedicated to Saint
Michael, are lowered to the main part of the church. As and after
the relics are lowered, some hold up babies, as the belief goes
that to touch the relics before they reach the ground is to receive
a wondrous healing and protection from misfortune.
After the statues of the two Marys have been lowered, the statue
of Sarah is brought up from the crypt below. She is carried on
the shoulders of four gypsies, on a procession to the nearby sandy
beach. On the beach, the party – surrounded by thousands
of pilgrims – wade knee-deep into the water, to turn around
and return the statue to the church, where the three saints are
venerated for the remainder of the day. Most of the gypsies leave
that night, but the town’s celebrations continue: the following
morning, the statues of the two Marys are placed in a bark and
are, on their turn, taken to the sea, returned and worshipped.
What is less known, is that the festival actually has a slightly
less popular third day, when there is the “abrivado”,
in memory of the Marquis de Baroncelli, who helped the local people.
Folco de Baroncelli was born in Aix in 1869, of an aristocratic
Florentine family, and soon developed a love for bulls. He settled
in the Camargue in 1895, founding the Manando Santenco near Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
He codified the activities of the gypsies and promoted minority
rights. He was the one who won the right for the gypsies to honour
Sarah publicly. Therefore, on the third day and in his honour,
bulls are driven through the streets, while the crowd tries to
let the bulls escape from their predetermined course. Even less
known is that there is a second pilgrimage on the weekend closest
to October 22, when the reliquaries of the two Marys are once
again taken down and are taken down to the sea. For this festival,
Sarah remains inside her crypt.
what is it that attracted the gypsies here? What is so special
about Sarah that thousands of gypsies, from all over Europe, come
to this area? It is not known when and why the local church became
so sacred to the gypsies, but what is know, is that it was some
time after the gypsies’ arrival in Europe in the early 1400s.
Likely, the devotion occurred after René d’Anjou
gave the order to excavate an oratory – where the two Marys
were allegedly buried – in December 1448. The excavations
revealed several human heads arranged in the form of a cross and
the bodies of two women, which were assumed to be the two Maries,
as local legend had it that the church had been built upon the
site where the two Maries had lived, and had been buried. An altar
of compacted earth was also found, as well as a smooth marble
stone that was later to be called “the Saints’ pillow”,
currently visible inside the church, upon which the saints’
heads were said to have been found.
At a ceremony in the presence of King René and Queen Isabelle,
the relics were piously placed in the two reliquaries and stored
in the upper chapel of the church. Though the reliquaries themselves
were destroyed at the time of the Revolution, the local priesthood
had apparently the foresight to secure the relics inside, so that
after the Revolution, merely two new reliquaries had to be made,
and the bones reinserted in them.
Though this explains the problem of the Marias, it is clear that
there were no bones of Sarah – and it is her statue, not
her relics, that is so paramount in the annual gypsy procession.
So why Sarah? For some, it is because she is “in truth”
a Black Madonna and – so the thinking goes – the gypsies
must be into the worship of the Black Madonna. Others see in Sarah
a Christianised substitute for the Indian Kali, whom the gypsy
are said to worship, and whose worship also involves placing her
statue into the sea. Still others argue that in “The Legend
of the Saintes-Maries”, written in 1521, Vincent Philippon
writes that Sarah travelled through the Camargue to provide for
the needs of a small Christian community. Thus, the practice of
begging for alms performed by Sarah gave early writers a reason
to make Sarah into a patron goddess of the gypsies.
gypsy festival of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the billboard of
the stories – legends – that members of Jesus’
inner circle came to France shortly after the Crucifixion. Chief
amongst those seeking out this safe-haven away from the tumult
of the Holy Land, was Mary Magdalene.
It is through the Provence that Christianity entered Europe, and
if it was not by the “First Family” of Christianity,
then historians need to explain how else it came about! Still,
orthodox tradition says that Mary Magdalene died and was buried
in Ephesus and that Leo VI took her relics to Constantinople.
There is, officially, therefore no room for her sojourn in France…
even though the French landscape is inscribed with relics and
legends of her presence there. The question therefore is: who
to believe? The accepted dogma of the Church, or the belief of
thousands if not millions of people, throughout the centuries,
if not millennia… and even scientific evidence?
to legend, Mary Magdalene and Lazarus left the Holy Land around
53 A and arrived in Massilia – Marseilles. There, each year
on February 2, the local people celebrate the arrival of Lazarus
and Mary Magdalene. It is said that they installed themselves
in a necropolis, on the south side of the Lacydon river, taking
care of the ill and preaching the new faith. After about a decade,
Mary Magdalene headed for nearby Sainte Baume, where she invoked
St Michael to chase out a monster, the Tarasco, from the cave
where she supposedly spent the remaining days of her life.
Less known is the legend that her sister Martha also came to France.
Saint Martha went to Avignon, though she was asked by the people
of Tarascon, just south of the city, to appease the Tarasco, which
had fled there. By showing the sign of the cross and using Holy
Water, she appeased the monster that used to rise out of the waters
of the Rhone to devour children and livestock.
short, there are several legends which say that the Christianisation
of France was said to have occurred by those who had witnessed
the miracles of Jesus and the Passion themselves. The belief,
or knowledge, that the “First Family of Christianity”
sojourned in France, became embedded in popular belief in medieval
times. In 950 AD, Rabanus Maurus, the bishop of Mayence, wrote
how Martha had converted the people of Tarascon and that she lived,
until her death (believed to have been ca. 68 AD), in a prayer
house constructed on that site, where now the church stood. Excavations
were carried out here in 1187 and bones, believed to have been
those of Martha, were found. It followed in the wake of the discovery
of the relics of Lazarus in 1146, which are currently in the crypt
of St Victor, in Marseilles. Inside the crypt is also a Black
Madonna, the Notre-Dame de Confession, said to have been sculpted
by Luke himself.
Pilgrimages to Tarascon began for real in the 13th century and
when King René inherited the Provence in 1435, he installed
local feasts in her name, which continue to this day, around June
24. But it was St Baume and nearby St Maximim that would become
the very cradle of Magdalene worship in France.
Maximin is referred to as the “third tomb of Christianity”,
because of the presence of the skull of Mary Magdalene there.
For centuries, the cave at St Baume had been a site of pilgrimage
for those wanting to see the alleged cave where Mary Magdalene
spent the last years of her life. Monks as early as the fifth
century tried to ease the access to the cave; later, kings came
to do the pilgrimage and for their convenience the “chemin
des Roys” was installed to take them up to the cave on horseback.
The big breakthrough, though, came in 1279, when the bones of
Mary Magdalene were said to have been found at nearby St Maximim.
Charles II, Count of Provence and nephew of Saint Louis, had a
dream on December 9, 1279, of a tomb containing bones at the foot
of the oratory of St Maximim. Pursuing his dream, he found a document
from 710, which said “here rests the body of Mary Magdalene”
– the document itself has since disappeared. A year later,
Louis officially recognised the finding as genuine and from 1295
onwards, Charles gave his entire fortune to build the basilica.
Interestingly, in 1300, St Maximim became a required stop for
all converted Cathars, the heretics who in the South of France
were convinced that Mary Magdalene had been married to Jesus Christ!
we therefore see in Southern France, is a consistent “global
legend” of the movements of the “First Family”,
and how they left their legacy… and bones… behind.
Though most academics and the church itself pass all of this off
as mere legend, one shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss it.
For example: in 1974, carbon-dating showed that the skull currently
on display as that of Mary Magdalene in St Maximin was that of
a woman who had died in the 1st century AD, that she was between
55 and 60 years old, and according to anthropomorphic studies
from 1978, 1.47m tall and of Mediterranean origin. If someone
faked the bones of Mary Magdalene at St Maximin, it’s unlikely
he would get it “so right”! And therefore the question
that needs to be posed, is this: do you believe official history,
or do you believe centuries and millions of people? Science indicates
your allegiance should be with the masses, not with authority!