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28 May 2009

Great Saints

Great Saints
The Holy Maries of the Sea
Heart of the Christian and Provençal tradition



The Cross of Camargue
The cross + the anchor + the heart: the 3 theological virtues


On the whole planet, every diocese, all the more its cathedral, offers the faithful its chapels and churches to accomplish their jubilee pilgrimage.In the course of the year 2000, we are going to visit some of this high ground of the faith. In the Rhône Delta, the cathedral of Aix-en-Provence diocese is the Holy Saviour's. Monseigneur Claude Feidt has chosen, as jubilee churches, Notre-Dame-de-la-Major at Arles and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer church in Camargue.

Land of tradition

Camargue, this triangle of 82,000 hectares between two arms of the Rhône, has jealously managed to keep its traditional parochialism. Paradoxically, its originality has been determined by the inhospitality of this land, basically marshy and brackish. The bull and the wild horse have found refuge here in the course of centuries while agriculture and forestry have always prevailed elsewhere. The first canal to drain the marshes was dug in the 12th century by the monks of Montmajour and the first dykes were only constructed in the 18th century. The salt and the rice _ after the vine _ have beckoned a small population to the Camarguais soil. The tourist eruption since the 1960s has not overwhelmed the Provençal tradition of which Camargue is one of the «reservoirs».

Its black bull and white horse have remained wild. The mares foal freely, outdoors. The foals are hence subjected to a harsh climate which decides their small size and remarkable resistance. The horse is broken in at the age of three, the breeding mare isn't saddled.

The bond between the small Camargue horse and its breeder is surprising. The rider leads with the left hand and holds his trident in the right hand. The sorting of bulls is done while galloping, it's an astonishing spectacle of skill and strength. This pastoral activity which would go back to the Antiquity, still exists to provide bulls for the ferias in the numerous arenas of Lower Provence and the Languedoc where passionate fans are crowding.

A horse breeder's life requires the qualities of energy, tenacity, uprightness, love of freedom as are very naturally born out of an inherited attachment to traditions. Thanks to the nacioun gardiano (the horse-breeding nation, the movement for the preserving of traditions founded in 1909 by Baroncelli), the pilgrimages to Saintes-Maries- de-la-Mer have persisted, in particular during the terrible depression of the faith from the 1960s to the 1980s. The herdsmen attended all processions, on horseback, wielding the trident, proud and smiling, paying respect to «their» Grandes Saintes. Last Christmas I saw them getting down from their mounts and going to the midnight mass, still holding the trident in their hand, and receiving Communion.

The nacioun gardiano means also the women of Arles, present at all manifestations, clad in their Provençal dress as they had been wearing until the Second World War.

The Mystery of the Saints

In the last years, the pilgrims have returned numerously (more than 40,000 last May _ estimated by the gendarmerie) including the Gypsies who had forgotten that Saint Sara has been expecting them in their sacred land by the 24th and 25th May for nearly two thousand years. The Saints without the Gypsies would be the Saints no more!

The Holy Maries (The Grandes Saintes, say the Provençaux) have always been watching over them. In the 11th century a hermit would have convinced a prince, who had arrived from Arles on a hunting trip, to build a church. It was certainlyGuillaume II, he incurred lavish expenses for the construction of a big fortress church surrounding the first oratory. At the beginning of the [20th] century, the Folco de Baroncelli were the poets and the horse breeders… Today it is Laurent Ayme, eighty-three years old, a genuine félibre,1 who liberally spends money to organize pilgrimages, to write and stage pastorals and to revive the Confraternity.

These watchers are the astonishing mystery of the Great Saints indeed, they are the embers under cold ashes. They were there at the beginning of the 19th century after the terrible Revolution, they were there during the 1920s while no Saintois soldier at all returned from the War of 1914-18… The whole Provençal tradition is steeped in the Catholic faith. The evangelization of France had started from Provence.

Who are the Saints?

The origin of this pilgrimage could be written as a Gospel sequel but it would be apocryphal as there is no historic source written on its origin. No need to be radical though, as the essence of the pre-12th century history is archaeological, and nowadays historians have gone as far as asserting that «a bundle of converging testimonies exceeds in historic value a document often subject to caution».2

In the year 44, following the death of Herod Agrippa, Judaea passed under direct Roman authority. The disciples of Jesus multiplied their numbers but the priests of the Sanhedrin, afraid of the Romans looking after public order, dared not eliminate them brutally and preferred to expel them. The witnesses to the life of Jesus were able to depart to evangelize Gaul: Lazarus the resurrected man, the sisters Martha and Mary the Magdalene, Maximinus, the blind-born man Sidonius who had been healed by Jesus, Mary Jacoby, Mary Salome… «Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.» (Mark 14, 16).

The latter would have been put in a barque, without provisions… and abandoned to the sea. A pious legend maintains that Sara, their maidservant who had been left on the beach, wanted to join them. Salome threw out her shawl to help her swimming (another legend has it that she would have welcomed them on their landing in Gaul).The barque ran aground on the Isle of Camargue. They would have made there a small altar of kneaded clay mentioned in the manuscripts of Gervais of Tilbury in 1212 and of Monseigneur Durand, the bishop of Mende, in the late 13th century. The altar was discovered again during the 1448 diggings.

_ Mary Jacoby is called, in the Gospels, Mary of Cleophas (John 19,25) or Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses (Mark 15, 40), or Mary the mother of James (Luke 24, 10). Her kinship with the Virgin cannot be established, John (19, 25) gives her as her sister but the Hebrews only had got, in their vocabulary, the words brother and sister to describe close kinship including all the cousins. She married Cleophas (also known as Alpheus), the brother of Saint Joseph, and they had 4 sons: James, Jude (or Thaddeus), Joseph (or Joses), Simeon (or Simon) and many daughters. With his brother Thaddeus, James the Less was called to the apostolate, he benefitted of a particular appearance of Christ (1 Co 15,7) after his resurrection. Saint Jerome associates him to the Church of Jerusalem, the apostles made him her bishop, he died as a martyr.

– Mary Salome is the wife of Zebedee, her sons are James the Greater and John, one of the Gospel writers. She would have been, with the Blessed Virgin and Mary the Magdalene, at the foot of the Calvary.Pious tales say their fellow travellers were Lazarus who went on to evangelize Marseille; Maximinus who went to Aix; Mary the Magdalene who followed her brother to Marseille, then set off for Aix and the cave of Sainte-Baume (see Chrétiens Magazine, January 1987); Martha who saved the dwellers of the banks of the Rhône by slaying Tarasque at Tarascon; Sidonius who became the bishop of Aix.The two Maries, elderly already, with Sara's help, settled down in the Isle of Camargue, near a source of fresh water they had found.

The cult of the Saints

Undoubtedly, they evangelized all the inhabitants they had found upon landing in Camargue. They were buried there after their death. Their tomb was soon paid worship, the pious legend speaks of many miracles.It was certainly a place already visited because of a pagan temple dedicated to Mithra or Diana of Ephesus (some remains have been preserved like an altar of marble that can be seen in the crypt of the present church). The Good Word is soon more easily spread in the whole countryside. Since this epoch, the nomadic tribes of the Bohemians, Gypsies and Caraques come to worship the relics of the saints and of Sara who, they say, was one of theirs and whom they make their patroness.

The first church was erected in the 4th century, called Sainte-Maria-de-Ratis (Sainte-Marie- de-la-Barque), surrouning the primitive oratory that certainly had been their abode.

In the 4th century Bishop Saint Caesarius of Arles installs a religious community there, the offshoot of the monastery he had founded at Arles in 512 with his sister Saint Caesaria.

There were Saracen invasions from the 8th to the 10th centuries. The best protection was the fortress. Thence the construction of the characteristic fortress church that protected the precious relics too. It has been rebuilt many times but the overall look that is preserved, is peculiar to the military buildings of the 8th century.

In the 12th century the first name of the church fell in oblivion to the benefit of Sancta-Maria- de-Mari (Saint Mary of the Sea) which has been preserved in the plural.

Throughout the Middle Ages, many princes of the blood and princes of the Church undertook a pilgrimage, alongside the crowds, to les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Many prayers were granted.

In 1332, the bishop of Saint-Pol-de- Léon, Pierre de Nantes, for many years paralyzed, implored the protection of the Saintes and took the oath to visit their church if they obtained his healing. He was healed, complied, composed a hymn in their honour in Latin verse and dedicated three altars to them.

The invention of the relics

The relics remained buried in the church, with no indication of the precise location. In order to give them a pride of place, in the 15th century, the pious prince René d'Anjou (the count of Provence, the king of Sicily and Jerusalem) intends to look for them. Pope Nicholas V gives him the authorization by a bull dated to the 3rd August 1448.

The whole matter was conducted following canonical rules, in an exemplary manner. Among else, there were gathered all the historic pieces of the legend, the liturgical name of the life of a Saint _ read at the mass of his feast _, always written with caution and rigour.

The exact and important diggings brought to daylight the canal of the freshwater source, then a man's head bandaged with lead (the head of Saint James the Greater), a cavity containing bowls of clay, charcoal and ashes (the humble abode of the two Saintes). Underneath the choir of the church, there was found a hillock of kneaded clay in which was discovered a small column of white stone topped by a small piece of marble, the whole forming an altar. Taking the diggings to the left, the workers discovered a perfectly preserved human body spreading a very pleasant sweet scent, its head was resting on a marble stone on which was engraved Hic jacet sancta Maria Jacobi (Here rests Saint Mary Jacoby3).3 The diggings to the right uncovered another body in the same position that emitted the same good odour, on a marble stone was engraved Hic jacet sancta Maria Salomi (Here rests Saint Mary Salome).

Other diggings to the left side of the oratory showed 3 children's heads, laid out in a triangle, these are the heads of three of the Holy Innocents.

Among the attributes of the portrayals of the Saintes Maries, they are seen bearing an urn each in which they had put, upon leaving Palestine, the heads of Saint James the Greater and of the Holy Innocents. It is remarkable these remains would have been preserved during more than fourteen hundred years in marshy and brackish soil.

Note also that immediately since the time of Christ's eyewitnesses, the relics (corporeal remains of the martyrs) had their importance. The relics are no more than remembrance attached to a venerable person, their presence in the churches is necessary, among else in the altar stone.

No other bodies were found, proving the respect paid by the Church to the Saintes.

The legate of the Pope, after having washed the relics carefully, put them in two wooden caskets. Numerous ceremonies were held that day in front of an immense and enthusiastic crowd that had flooded from all Provence. The relics were exposed to everybody's veneration under a canopy, surrounded by the royal court of Provence and the authorities of the Church. In a bronze reliquiary were deposited the heads of Saint James and of the Holy Innocents as well as the remains of Sainte Sara (let's remember that she has never been canonized but is considered a Saint by the power of the vox populi).

After the closing of the caskets containing the relics of the saints, they were solemnly raised in the chapel constructed above the choir where they still are. Since this time many miracles have been recorded, they have, in the course of centuries, not benefited of canonical inquests but they couldn't be ignored, so numerous they were, except the very last years. A nun, an old friend of mine, encountered at the last October pilgrimage, from whom I enquired, answered with much good sense: «The faithful are told no more that God works miracles, then they forget to present their sufferings to Him, they deprive themselves of the greatest graces God is ready to grant, they still must ask him through the intercession of the saints. A little child knows very early that it can get candy by insisting very loudly on its parents. Our great saintes are ready to do much for us but they must be asked. I come every year with all the intentions confided to me. This year, moreover, I have come to say thanks.»

The Revolution

1793: the consequences of the iniquitous decisions of the Convention break over a France already in pain. The victims of the guillotine are abundant. The priests refusing to take the oath are imprisoned unless they have chosen the exile. A destructive storm hits the churches and chapels. God is expelled to be replaced by a stupid idol to whose adoration the people are pushed. Armed men from Arles, after having threatened the people, broke in the Saintes church and seized furniture and valuable objects, including two silver reliquiaries in the form of hands. But they ignored the caskets.

In the night of the 22nd October, Abbé Abril and one of his parishioners, M. Molinier, removed some of the remains of the saints from the caskets and hid them in a shed near the cemetery.

On the 5th May 1794 the despicable persons reappeared and sacked the church. They encountered no resistance. They took the caskets down, took the votive gifts out, removed the reliquiary of Sainte Sara and burnt everything while dancing a fiendish saraband. The profaners _ all had come from Arles and were known to the Saintois _ would tragically die in two years, I was told in my childhood by an old damsel who held the key of the door leading to the roof of the church (can still be visited today).

Early in 1797: the Directory votes many laws restoring national peace, including the abolition of the laws against the Church. France, exhausted, aspires to peace and many ardently desire the return of religion. Two pious Saintois give the new curate the remains of Sainte Sara that had been saved from the flames of 1794. An administrator of the district of Arles returns one of the two reliquiary hands discovered in an office of his administration. It would be the one containing a relic of Saint Martha. M. Molinier, after long hesitations due to fear of reprisals, points out the hiding place of the relics of the Saintes. Pious history reports that he would have been saved from a shipwreck by imploring the Grandes Saintes and he would have taken the oath to dedicate himself to the renewal of the pilgrimages.

The relics were found to be tied up with strips provided with 1709 and 1710 seals of authentification. On the 25th May 1797 they were solemnly installed in the upper chapel to the sound of Te Deum, in the midst of joyous ovations.

The 23rd May the following year, when the caskets were being taken own, Antoine Gousty, seriously ill, was suddenly healed. The crowd carries him in triumph before the exposed Holy Sacrament while singing at the top of their voice the hymn of the action of grace. The long list of healings was resumed. One of the church walls is covered with naïve votive paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The pilgrimages

The two main yearly pilgrimages:

– The 24th and 25th May (feast of Saint Mary Salome). It is also the pilgrimage of the Sons of the Wind, the Gypsies arriving from all of France, Italy, Spain, Ireland but also South Africa and India. While they come for the Saintes Maries, above all they worship their patroness Saint Sara.

– The Saturday and Sunday following the 15th October (feast of Saint Mary Jacoby).

– And the pilgrimage of the Saturday and Sunday after the 3rd December, reserved to the Saintes (but open to all). No procession but the caskets are taken down. 19th-century narratives describe enthusiastically the crowds of pilgrims who had arrived on foot, by carriage or by boat while Mistral arrived from Maillane in a wagon driven by horses. The crowds increased since October 1892 thanks to the small train departing from Arles, inaugurated in August.

One must make at least once in his lifetime the pilgrimage of the Saintes, steeped in this very Southern hot atmosphere. The May one is the more vivid because of the presence of the Gypsies, with an excessive but very sincere expression of faith! How not to be touched by seeing them delve in prayer, face covered with tears, at the feet of Sainte Sara? One remark peculiar to our time: there are seen more and more people in prayer than I can recall seeing just a few years ago. It is not only the Gypsies, more and more people are seen in our churches at weekly masses, including those under thirty.

Do not miss the casket ceremony in Saturday afternoon. For many centuries, they are taken down, by a winch, from the upper chapel above the altar. All along the ropes, bouquets of flowers and votive gifts are fixed by the pilgrims. Those present chant an old Provençal song whose rhythm reminds one of the waves of the sea. As soon as the descent starts, out of a sudden, all the believers, a lit candle in their hand, raise their arms and jubilantly exclaim: «Vive les Saintes, vive les Saintes…» Many weep with joy. In some year a priest gives a homily in lango nostro. The believers can pray near the caskets. Some touch and kiss them.

The next day, after the high mass, there is the pilgrimage to the beach. The procession is opened by herdsmen riding on horseback, wielding the trident, wearing a black vest and a coloured shirt made of Indian fabric (a Provençal specialty since the 17th century, resumed thirty years ago with designs and colours attesting to good taste). At the head of the procession walk the clergy, including a priest carrying the reliquiary hand, followed by costumed women of Arles, the tambourinaires (musicians striking the tambourine with their left hand and playing the flute with the right hand).

The members of the Confraternity are surrounding and carrying the ship with the Saints. In May, the Gypsies are following them while carrying the statue of Sainte Sara, around which the sons of the wind press themselves to touch and kiss it and to lay a bunch of flowers at its feet.

When the cortège arrives to the beach, herdsmen wade in the sea up to the chest of their horses and form a half-circle. In their turn the bearers of the Saintes and of Sainte Sara march in water followed by some believers. The bishop goes into a barque lying on the beach and blesses, with the reliquiary hand, the statues, the pilgrims and the sea. The church bells are pealing out. The statues are brought back to the church, greeted on their arrival by the Magnificat. They are then taken back to the upper chapel. The ceremony ends with the regional hymn: Provencaou et catouli (Provençal and Catholic) that everyone sings at the top of his voice, proud of his race, as Mistral said.


Christian Ravaz


1 - Félibrige: an academic organization founded in 1854 by Frédéric Mistral for the creation of a «literary Provençal», still active. The members are called the félibres.

2 - Les Saintes Maries de Provence - Chanoine J.-M. Lamoureux _ reprint of a book of 1908 (the only work available on the history of the Saintes) _ Editions Bélisane _ 16x24 _ 294 pages _ 160 F.

3 - One of the stones of white marble has been walled in a column of the church, to the right of the nave on the edge of which are put the statues of the two Maries. This stone is much worn because of touches of the pilgrims attributing it curative powers.


SOURCE: Andreas (trans.), "Great Saints," Da Vinci Code Forum (Retrieved 28 May 2009).

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