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In the footsteps of the Marys in France

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, 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?

Philip Coppens


Archaeological 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 Worship to the triple water deity Matres co-existed with and was later superseded by Roman temples dedicated to Artemis, Cybele, Isis and Mithras.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.

A 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 day.
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.

The 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.

So 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.

The 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?

According 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.

In 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.

Saint 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!

What 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!