The Black Madonna of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

The Black Madonna – a saint venerated by the Gypsies – can be found at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Camargue.

The history of Sara the Black is not really well defined: sometimes she is a servant of the Saintes Maries, sometimes she is a Gypsy who welcomed exiled people. Every year, in May, the Travellers gather to celebrate their patron saint. During this pilgrimage, the participants are in jubilation in all the streets sharing their joy, happiness and belief.

Sara la Noire, patronne des Gitans

Sara the Black is a saint venerated by the Gypsy community at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Camargue. Her statue is in the Church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, on the right at the back of the crypt, dressed in multicoloured robes and jewellery. Famous throughout the world as the patron saint of the Gypsies, Sara is an enigma in terms of historiography that does not seem to be ready to be solved.

The first mention of Sara is found in a text by the perpetual vicar Vincent Philippon written in 1521. A Camargue legend sees her as the servant of the Holy Marys Jacobé and Salomé in Palestine on the banks of the Rhône. Another tradition, assigned to the Gypsies, considers her to be a Gypsy who settled on the shores of Provence to welcome the exiles from the Holy Land. Other proposals of her story were also submitted. In truth, no one can know who Sara really is and how her cult was established in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

According to the Gypsies, she is their appointed protector “Sara-la-Kali”, a gypsy word meaning both gypsy and black. When King René requested the exhumation of the bones of the Saints – the two Marys – a third female skeleton was found. Considered of inferior dignity, the remains of this female body were placed in a wooden box. Judging her to be their patron saint, the Gypsies decided to come to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to  venerate her. The Marquis of Baroncelli – father of the Camargue traditions – redoubled his efforts to establish this pilgrimage. This is how Sara la Noire is celebrated every 24th May.

The tradition of pilgrimages to the Saintes Maries

The tradition of pilgrimages was mainly reinforced by King René in the 14th century when he demanded excavations under the church of the town. Every year in May, one of the most beautiful pilgrimages in France takes place. At Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Camargue, thousands of travellers arrive from all over Europe – some with their caravans, trailers and horses. During this festivity, also known as the “Gypsy pilgrimage”, the Traveller community comes to honour Sara the Black, their patron saint. The Gypsies celebrate weddings, births and children’s baptisms. Some of them even wait for the pilgrimage to have their children baptised in the church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

The statue of Saint Sara is adorned with luxurious clothes, offerings and candles. She is carried in a solemn procession to the sea, during which pilgrims rush to try to touch her. The pilgrims make wishes for healing and requests for protection which they hope will be granted.

The day after this pilgrimage, the people of Provence take over to pay homage to the saints Marie Jacobé and Marie Salomé. The shrines containing the relics of the Holy Marys are lowered to the full height of the nave. Bouquets of flowers brought by the faithful are attached to the ropes. A tradition carried out for centuries, it is a moment of intense emotion for all pilgrims. All this popular folklore rich in spirituality, colour and music attracts many visitors every year.

The pilgrimage takes place on 24 and 25 May.

Towards the Black Madonna

Planning to visit the capital of Camargue? Almost 40 km south of Arles, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is located on the seafront and in the heart of the Camargue Natural Park. The village is easily accessible from any city (Marseille, Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Montpellier…). In addition to visiting the legendary church of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, you will have access to the Port Gardian and the well-maintained beaches. The latter are accessible on foot for families and have showers. The calm Mediterranean is perfect for swimming and bathing with children. Are you a fan of board sports? The wind allows you to practise your activity in an exceptional environment.