St. Marie-Madeline Relics in Provence

Christ and Mary Magdeline, Rembrandt Van Rijn (1609-1669)

After the Virgin few women in the Bible are revered as much as St Mary Magdaline. It was she who tradition says that brought the Faith to France, thus making France the First Daughter of the Church. This Saint, the person who had the privelidge to look upon the Saviour's face in life and death, and in resurrection indicates of the place of honour with which God holds her.

First a short history of Mary Magdalene’s (Marie-Madeline in French) pre-Provencial life from Scripture. First the Gospels have little information on her. We know that she was Jesus disciple, and was present at the Crucifixion, she was the first person to see Jesus after his Resurrection. Catholic tradition tells us she was a woman of loose morals, and was the women who was to be stoned by the scribes and Pharisees. In Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9, the Gospels tell us that she was freed from seven demons, a Biblical euphemism for being healed from a great illness. In the Gosples of John and Luke there is a Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, who may be the Magdalene. After her encounter she led a life of faithfulness and purity. She is called the Apostle to the Apostles.

In the French tradition, Mary, who was persecuted by the Jews of Jerusalem, and a group of other disciples are cast a drift in a boat without sails or oars. In this group we find Mary, mother of James, Mary, mother of James the Greater and John, Maximinus, Lazarus and Sarah, an Egyptian servant. Through God's Grace they survive the voyage and land and reach the shores of southern Provence, in what is now known as the Camargue.

Eventually the group go their separate ways in order to proclaim the Gospel. Mary Magdalene travels north to the region which is called today Ste. Baume. Lazarus is said to have been the first Bishop of Marseille. The other Mary's and Sarah remain in the south of Provence. Their residence is now the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (St Mary's of the Sea), a place of pilgrimage to honor the arrival of the three Marys, and the burial of two.

** The Massif des Maures, from St Baume,(Massif of the Moors in English) did the Moors receive their name from this range or give their name to the massif?

Mary Magdalene preaches the Gospel throughout Provence. But eventually she retires to a cave in the St. Baume mountains. After 33 years of prayer, contempaltion, and penance, Mary was called to be with the Lord she loved so much. She is given her last rites and viaticum by Maximinus, (now called St Maximin). Maximunis buries her in a cript in a grotto, which becomes a place of pilgrimage. During the incursions of the Muslims of the Umayyad Caliphate, who wished to extend Islam throughout Europe by force life for Christians was increasingly dangerous.

About 710 the relics were transfered in secret by the Cassianistes(1) monks to avoid the desecration of St Marie-Magdalene’s relics. This date and this transfer is authenticated by the discovery in 1279 in the sarcophagus of a papyrus with the following text: "The year of the birth of the Lord 710, the sixth day of December, at night and very secretly, under the reign of the very pious Eudes, king of the Franks, during the time of the ravages of the treacherous nation of the Saracens, the body of the dear and venerable St. Mary Magdalene was, for fear of the said treacherous nation, moved from her alabaster tomb to the marble tomb, after having removed the body of Sidonius, because it was more hidden."

For 5 centuries, the location of the body of St. Mary Magdalene remained unknown.

On December 9, 1279 Charles Salerno, nephew of St. Louis and who became Count of Provence and King of Sicily under the name of Charles II, rediscovered the tomb and the relics of St. Mary Magdalene. They were also recognized by an assembled Clergy of the Dioceses of Provence. At the opening of the sarcophagus all present testify to a ”wonderful and very sweet smell” and are reminded of the perfume which St Mary Magdalene poured on the head and feet of the Lord before his death. The jaw and lower leg bones were missing.

During the solemn Elevation of the body St Mary Magdalene, (5 May,1280) a tablet of wood was discovered smeared with wax on which were the words: "Hic requiescit corpus beatae Mariae Magdalenae”.(2) The estimated age that the tablet is between the 110 and 600 years old (1st and 4th centuries). A testimonial letter destined for the pope was signed by the four Prince Archbishops and three bishops, describing these events and was kept for a long time in the reliquary of St Maximin along with the translations of 1281 and 1283. The bones except for the head which was missing the lower jaw are placed in a silver case.

The skull from the sarcophagus (of St Maximin) was reunited to its lower jaw at St John Lateran in Rome thanks to Pope Boniface VIII, who remembered a relic of a jawbone which was said to been that of St. Mary Magdelene. The fit was perfect. Pope Bonicface published a Pontifical Bull for the establishment of Dominicans at St Maximin and at La Ste Baume to be the guardians over the reliquaries.

The relics of St Mary Magdalene were transposed to a porphyry blessed in Rome by Urban VIII. King Louis XIV personally attended this solemn transposition and made the pilgrimage to La Ste Baume for this occasion. Copies of authenticated documents of the discovery in 1279 and the official acts of the transposing of the relics in 1281 and 1283 were transcribed and are stored in the archives of the Monastery of St. Maximin and in the seminary of St. Sulpice.

In 1789 the revolution came to France, and all things religious are scoffed upon or destroyed in the name of the "Cult of Reason and Enlightenment". Barras who will become the main Executive leader of the Directory, steals by force the cases, the precious jewels and the valuables surrounding the relics. One Joseph Bastide, sacristan of St. Maximin saved from desecration(3) St. Mary Magdalene's skull along with the holy glass sphere containing earth soaked with the blood of Our Most Holy Lord Jesus Christ collected by St Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross. Other parts of the relics were saved other pious people.

A significant portion of the tibia of the right leg and a lock of the Hair of St. Mary Magdalene will be saved by Madame Ricard who will leave St Maximin for fear of being denounced and pursued. She flee to Bonnieux and stay with the Anselme family. The relics remained in the hands of the head of the household, Joseph-Hyacinthe-Philippe d’Anselmo and father of Louis-Victor d’Anselme and Marie-Marguerite-Félicité d’Anselme who married Jean-Baptiste Terris on April 13th, 1804.

The relics remain hidden throughout the time of Napoleon.

Marguerite-Félicité d’Anselme married Jean-Baptiste Terris on April 13th, 1804. The last of 11 children from this marriage was to become the Bishop of Frejus and to whom was intrusted the relics of St Mary Magdalene which had been kept by Madame Ricard.

Upon his death Bishop Terris bequeathed to the diocese of Frejus these relics of St Mary Magdalene (the lower part of the tibia from the right leg and a lock of hair), along with the reliquary which contains them to be kept in the grotto of La Ste Baume near Nans.


(1) Vestiges gallo-romains de l'oratoire de Saint-Cassien attestant la présence des moines cassianistes au V° siècle dans le massif de la Sainte-Baume. Gallo-Roman vestiges in the oratory of St Cassian attest to teh presence of Monks of St John Cassian in the 5th century. (Bouisson "Archives")Spiritualite Chretienne V° siècle. The local dialect of Provence is one of the languages most closely related to rustica lingua romanica, or the common language of Rome.

(2) L'inscription trouvée lors de l'invention des reliques en 1279, en même temps que celle de 716 (Le Blanc, Inscriptions, L. p.9; Sicard; Escudier) : "Hic requiescit corpus Mariae Magdalenae", c'est-à-dire" Ici repose le corps de sainte Madeleine". A noter qu'une inscription semblable, trouvée dans le sarcophage de sainte Marthe à Tarascon en 1187, indiquant en latin : "Beata Martha Jacet Hic", date de ce même V° siècle. The inscription found at the time of the discovery of the relics in 1279, at the same time that the one of 716 (Le Blanc, Inscriptions, L. p. 9; Sicard; Escudier): "Hic requiescit corpus Mariae Magdalenae", that is to say "Here rests the body of the St Madeleine". It is notable that a similar inscription, found in the sarcophagus of St Martha in Tarascon in 1187, indicating in Latin: "Beata Martha Jacet Hic", also dates to the 5th century. Spiritualite Chretienne V° siècle.

(3) The revolution took excesive pride in the destruction of parish churches, sometime turning them into stables, the destuction of relics such as those of Ste. Geviveive whose magnificent basilica was converted to be a shine to the false gods of the revolution, (Marat for example), the killing of Priests and women religious. The republic chose as another way to embarras the faith by the imposition of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.

(4) EWTN

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