Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

The Pilgrimage Sites of St. Mary Magdalene in Provence: August 2009 and May 2010

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

The Pilgrimage Sites of St. Mary Magdalene in Provence: August 2009 and May 2010

Article excerpt

[The first part of this review appeared in the September 2010 issue of Anglican and Episcopal History.]

In 2009-2010 a Canadian Anglican and two religiously uncommitted friends decide to explore the three major pilgrimage sites that recall the history, or legend, of Mary Magdalene in Provence. At les Saintes-Mariesde-la-Mer, a small town in the Rhone River delta, they will see where she is said to have first set foot in Europe after her miraculous journey by boat from Judea, in the company of her siblings, her mentor, her friends, and the servant Black Sara, later the patron saint of gypsies. Many miles east, in the mountainous massif called Sainte-Baume, they will visit the grotto where, according to Provencal tradition, she retired to an ascetic life of meditation, contrition, and praise, after she had evangelized Provence. And in the valley north of Sainte-Baume they will tour the basilica of Saint-Maximin, which claims her relics. They will find that Mary Magdalene of Provence and Black Sara of the gypsies have eluded the efforts of the church to channel their immense appeal into officially sanctioned ecclesial arenas.

To reach their first destination, the commune of les Saintes-Maries-dela-Mer, the visitors drive into the Camargue, an island delta between the two branches of the Rhone River, which divides near Aries on its way to the sea. This is an alluvial lowland of marsh, rivulets, stagnant water, and salt-water lagoons called étangs. Bitterly cold on many winter days, swelteringly hot and insect-ridden in the height of summer, the Camargue was a barely inhabitable land of "destitution and fever"1 before modern times, and even today it remains sparsely populated. But in May 2010 the visitors find the weather perfectly warm and beautifully sunny. As they draw near to the town, the visitors glimpse the bell tower of its church rising dramatically above the roofs of whitewashed houses with blue shutters. Les Saintes-Mariés proves to be a compact seaside tourist town with a fine sandy beach. The name of the main square, Place des Gitans, affirms the town's long-standing association with the Romani people.

The church rises within and above a pedestrian zone of souvenir shops, ice cream stalls, clothing stores, and drinking establishments. From the outside the church resembles a fortress, with thick grey brick walls, a tall keep, crenellated battlements around a high terrace, and narrow doors and windows in Romanesque style. It was built in fear of raiders and pirates. Entering through a door in the northwest, the visitors find a dimly lit room of satisfyingly balanced dimensions (forty meters long, nine meters wide, fifteen meters high). Without transept or side chapels, the room seems simple and sturdy, not to say stark. At the front of the nave, a well of fresh water recalls days when the town expected periodic sieges. On the north wall of the nave, statues of two women stand in a small boat; they hold spice jars.

Above the choir arch overhead, a window opens to the high chapel, closed to visitors. A guide booklet available from a vending machine for two euros' reports that the high chapel houses a double reliquary containing relics of the two women whose statues are in the nave: these are Mary Salome (Marie-Salomé) and Mary of James (Mariejacobe). In a typical medieval identification, Mary Salome was the wife of Zebedee and the mother of James the Greater and John, while Mary of James was the mother of James the Less, Simon, and Jude; and they were both half-sisters of Mary the mother of Jesus. For medieval pilgrims on their way through Aries to the shrine of St. James the Greater at Compostella, it was a providential convenience that his mother was buried just a short detour away. Twice a year, the relics are lowered slowly by rope from the window in the choir arch to an excited crowd of assembled worshipers.

The statue and reliquary of dark-skinned Sara, patron saint of gypsies, is in the crypt, which is entered down a staircase through the floor of the nave near the choir. …

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