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The history of Mary Magdalene’s relics in Provence

The history of Mary Magdalene’s relics in Provence

If we turn to Provençal tradition, we learn that Mary Magdalene – accompanied by Martha, Lazarus and their companions – sailed to the south of France.

 

She reached the Sainte-Baume cave where she lived in faith until the end of her life. The relics of this apostle of Jesus were found by Charles II of Anjou in the 13th century. While visiting Provence, you can admire the imposing golden reliquary in which the head of Mary Magdalene is located.

The refuge in the Sainte-Baume cave

Provençal tradition tells that after the resurrection of Christ, Mary Magdalene, Martha, Lazarus and their companions set sail. Forced to leave their country of origin because of persecution, they rely on the grace of God to find a new home. The currents and winds carried them to Gaul, and more precisely to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Once they had arrived, the disciples and faithful separated. Martha went to Avignon and Tarascon, Lazarus went to Marseille, and Mary Magdalene – after staying with Lazarus for a while to announce the Gospel – took refuge in a cave that would later be known as the Sainte-Baume.

Mary Magdalene, a disciple of Jesus, ended her days there in prayer and penance for about thirty years. It is said that the angels carried her closer to heaven, to the place where the small chapel of Saint-Pilon was built to commemorate the miracle.

The discovery of the relics by Charles II of Naples

In 1279, Charles II of Naples, nephew of King Saint Louis, discovered the relics of Mary Magdalene during excavations in the basement of the church of Saint-Maximin-de-la-Sainte-Baume. He uncovered several sarcophagi dating from the 4th century. The remains of Mary Magdalene’s body lay in that of Saint-Sidoine. Faced with this discovery, the Count of Provence asked Pope Boniface VIII in Rome to have these relics authenticated. Once he had obtained the approval of His Holiness, he built an imposing basilica dedicated to the pilgrimage, and entrusted the relics to the care of the Dominican friars.

According to legend, many miracles occurred in these holy places. Even today, pilgrims continue to flock here to pray to the patron saint of Provence, Mary Magdalene. All of the fragments of Mary Magdalene’s body have been scattered over the centuries. The head – the skull of the deceased – nevertheless lies in an impressive gold reliquary in the crypt of the Basilica of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, above her tomb.

The reconstitution of the journey of Mary Magdalene

At the end of August 2021, on the initiative of the Dominican friars, the relics belonging to Mary Magdalene travelled from port to port in Provence. The aim was to bring to life the journey that Mary Magdalene made to escape persecution in Palestine. The sailboats left from the port of Toulon and made a stopover at Le Brusc, Sanary-sur-Mer, Bandol, La Ciotat, Cassis and Marseille. This event also brought the culture linked to Saint Mary Magdalene to the attention of the younger generation. Each day was rather similar: the docking took place in the early afternoon and was followed by the procession through the host town to its church. Visitors were invited to enter the church building so that the relics of Mary Magdalene could be presented to them. At around 6.30 p.m., a mass was held to honour the saint. A grand evening of vigils and prayers concluded the day’s visit to the maritime city.

Mary Magdalene’s face modelled

At the request of the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, scientists – including a doctor specialising in ancient corpses and a forensic portrait painter – studied the relic of Mary Magdalene, which is on display in the basilica of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. Starting with her skull, their study has made it possible to reconstruct the face of the Saint for the first time. To do this, the team of researchers first took a series of photographs in one night, with only one degree of difference between them. As they did not have the right to access the reliquary, the task proved to be somewhat delicate. After this stage, the 3D modelling of the skull’s surface could be carried out. Based on previous analyses carried out by the CNRS, the portraitist was able to reconstruct the eyes, nose, cheekbones, etc. For the hair and eyebrows, the scientists analysed a lock of hair preserved in a reliquary. This revealed that Mary Magdalene was a Mediterranean woman of about 50 years of age, probably of small stature.

Discover Mary-Magdalene’s relics

Provence is home to the third largest tomb in Christendom, after Jerusalem, where Christ died, and Rome, where St Peter lies.

You can discover the relics of Mary Magdalene in two different places in Provence

in the basilica located in Saint-Maximin-La-Sainte-Baume (83470)
in the grotto of Mary Magdalene, in the heart of the Sainte-Baume massif, to the east of the town of Plan-d’Aups-Sainte-Baume (83640)
If you prefer the Sainte-Baume sanctuary, a walk in the forest is necessary. We advise you to wear hiking shoes or trainers, and to bring a backpack with water.

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