Mary-Magdalene: adventures in Provence and relics with a surprising smell

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Mary-Magdalene's sarcophagus - ©Rvalette / CC-BY-SA Mary-Magdalene's sarcophagus - ©Rvalette / CC-BY-SA
Ste-Marie-Madeleine basilica in St-Maximin-la-Ste-Baume Basilica Relic Legend

Mary-Magdalene: you sinner!

Our story began with Mary-Magdalene... do you know her? She was born in a castle in Galilee, she was a princess with royal blood, but she lived as a sinner with a pretty dissolute life! Until she met Jesus and heard his sermons.

She led a riotous existence... Well, no more with that! She gave up everything and followed him. People even called her "Jesus’ wife"... After this one died, Magdalene met saint Sidoine, Maximin, Marthe and others. They crossed together the Mediterranean sea and arrived in Provence, in the Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Magdalene decided to leave her friends and went alone.

Alone, under a leaden sun, walking in the stones and the dust, for days on end! After a moment, she came across the Sainte-Baume cave. A pretty damp cave, but... that would be fine: Magdalene didn’t want a 4-star hotel, she wanted... to repent! So the cave would be perfect.

She retired here for the rest of her life, spending 30 years alone, praying, eating roots and drinking rain water. Then she passed away. The legend says that her body was transported by angels near his friend Maximin’s body...

Their friends raised them a small oratory to protect their graves. In this oratory pilgrims started to come in a body. So, few centuries later, monks from Saint-Victor abbey, led by saint Cassien, were sent here to keep an eye on the relics: they raised a staircase on the rock, leading to the cave. This cave was later transformed into a chapel, centuries after...

The basilica

Relics exchange

We were in the 5th century, pilgrims came more and more. But the Saracens invaded the area in the beginning of the 8th century! Chaos. Destruction. They plundered everything. Fortunately, they never founded the two saints' graves!

Because monks had hide them under tons of sand and earth... they even exchanged Sidoine’s graves with Magdalene’s one! To cover tracks...

Provence-Burgundy: tie?

In the 11th century, a crazy rumour says that Magdalene’s relics were in fact... in Vézelay’s basilica, in Burgundy! But Burgundian monks get relics from saint Maximin himself!

Bishop of Autun, confused by those two relics, decided to annul Vézelay’s pilgrimage. A decision cancelled by pope Pascal II few times later... Even if a small doubt remained, they admitted that Magdalene’s relics were well and truly in Provence.

Relics that smell like fennel!

And yet one fine day of 1279, the future count of Provence Charles of Anjou rediscovered the sainte’s grave in Saint-Maximin, in Provence! The tradition says that when he opened it, it smell something balsamic and they found... a fennel plant which grew on the saint’s tongue!

And above her left eye, a piece of flesh, which was Magdalene’s forehead, touched by Jesus on the morning of his resurrection. The relic was pink until 1780, then it became shrivelled up...

So, the count decided to raise a hugest basilica on the foundations of the Merovingian chapel. Built by his architect Pierre, it’s the largest Gothic church in Provence, 74 metres long and 37 large! Then Anjou called Dominican friars to keep those relics: he raised a convent for them, this huge building with a horseshoe shape, near the basilica. With this relic discovering, pilgrimages went on with renewed energy!

The basilica’s visit

Don’t miss

• Bishop of Toulouse Louis d’Anjou’s cope, decorated with 30 medallions made of silk, representing Christ’s life.
• the choir’s panelling: about 100 stalls decorated with medallions representing Dominican saints, made by friar Vincent Funel in the 17th century.
• The nice wooden throne, whose banister was made of a single trunk, sculpted by brother Louis Gudet in 1756.

A preserved organ: thanks, Lucien Bonaparte!

Raised in 1773 by Dominican brother Jean-Esprit Isnard, from Tarascon. A real technical exploit, with 4 keyboards and 2981 pipes!

For the record, do you know Napoleon’s brother saved that organ? During the French Revolution, one of his younger brother, Lucien, came in Saint-Maximin. He felt so well, in Provence! Even with those trouble times... hey, he fell in love with a young lady, Mr. Boyer...

In short, when Lucien saved the organ when one day he saw Paul Barras and his henchmen entering in the church in order to destroy it... He saved it by playing the Marseillaise! Touched, Barras left the place...

The crypt

We can see Magdalene’s relics, in a bronze reliquary (19th century). Inside, her skull! The tradition says her grave was the third most important grave in the world, after Jesus one in Jerusalem and Peter’s one in Rome!

Charles of Anjou put the skull in a golden reliquary, his arm in an-other one and her body in a silver one. Charles I of Anjou, his father, sent a crown to put on her skull. Pope Boniface VIII brought back a jaw for Magdalene’ head from Italy (her lower jaw was missing): the two parts perfectly fit together!

Below that, there’s a phial with a piece of Magdalene’s forehead, the famous forehead touched by Jesus when he resurrected, saying noli me tangere, "don’t touch me".

In the cave too, we have a phial full of a red liquid... a liquid made of little pebbles and piece of earth tinted by Jesus blood, picked up by Magdalene after his death! In the 19th century, on Good Friday, this dark blood turned into a ruby colour matter.

And also!