Sunday, 4 September 2016

Shrine to the other Mary

The Basilica Sainte-Madeleine stands high above the town of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in eastern Var.
If you have ever visited Florence, the Il Duomo, standing head and shoulders above the town, is what catches your eye, creating a magnificent focal point and vying for the most important building around.

And it is the same for visitors as they arrive in the town of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte Baume (known as ‘St Maximin’ for short), where the large semi-Gothic Basilica Sainte-Madeleine, stands proudly above the town and is visible for miles across the verdant valley.
A statue of Mary Magdalene outside the crypt in the basilica.
I love a story about a place and St Maximin is rich with many, the prime one being that this is the resting place of the ‘sinner’ saint, Mary Magdalene.

According to the story - disputed in other parts of France - St Mary Magdalene arrived in Provence with her three companions, travelling from the Holy Land in a boat with no helmsman.

She made her way inland to the Massif Sainte Baume (just south of the town), where she climbed to a hidden cave high in the mountains. There she lived a 30-year penance for her sins. Her Holy Grotto, now a monastery, is more than 800 metres up among a forest which has been protected for centuries.

Eventually, near her death, she was brought down to St Maximin and after she died her body was buried in the place where the basilica stands today.
The niche where Mary Magdalene's skull rests behind the grille.
Later excavations found her bones, but just her skull is now on display in a crypt below the nave of the church.

And as well as her skull, in a separate reliquary is a shred of tissue from her forehead where Christ is supposed to have placed his fingers the morning of the Resurrection. It has been sealed in a crystal tube and known as ‘Noli Me Tangere’ (Do not touch me).

I find these stories quite exciting. In Les Arcs-sur-Argens, we have the preserved body of Sainte Roseline lying in a glass casket for all to see, and here, just 50km away, is the skull of Mary Magdalene. One can’t help but be impressed!

The beautiful, soaring Gothic interior of the Basilica Sainte-Madeleine.
So an ‘enormous temple’ was built in the 14th century – though not finished until the 16th – to house all the pilgrims the church authorities expected to descend on the town.
The unfinished exterior of the basilica.

It is a magnificent church – though the bell tower and main entrance have never been finished. The front still looks like the back of the lathe and plaster wall with mortar oozing out between the rough stones.

Even so, the architecture is amazing with 10 flying buttresses each side and celestial ceilings inside. I always thought Gothic churches were distinguished by their spires. This has no spire, but when you are inside, it feels as though there must be one.
There are paintings, mosaics, statues, low-relief carvings in wood and breath-taking beauty that make it well worth a visit. The seven-sided apse with its ‘La Gloire’ (glory) window, is stunning, as is the sculpted walnut choir with its 94 stalls.

The historic 1773 organ, known as the ‘Grandes Orgues’ with its 2,960 pipes, is known the world over. I can’t imagine the impact of its music reverberating through the high stone arches.

The skull.
The crypt, housing Mary Magdalene’s skull, is located in the centre of the building. It is still basically as it was in 1279 with steps leading down into it. As you descend into the  barrel-vaulted cave, there is a beautiful statue of the ‘sinner’ saint facing the relic.
The crypt actually houses four sarcophagi – Mary Magdalene, her companions Maximin and Sidonius and her servant Marcella.

Of course the people of the town of V├ęzelay in Burgundy, would dispute all this. They feel they have a claim on St Mary Magdalene.

However a lot of political wheeling and dealing in the 13th century by Charles I of Anjou (who became Duke of Provence), wrested the Mary Magdalene story from the northerners and had her relics confirmed as genuine by Pope Boniface VIII.

And even if the story doesn’t capture your imagination, the basilica is something not to miss while in Provence.
* To enjoy the hidden parts of inland Provence, why not stay at Maison Les Arcs in the central Var town of les Arcs-sur-Argens.



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