The three Maries in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

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Saintes Maries de la Mer aerial view

Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is one of the most emblematic towns in Southern France.

Located on the shore of Camargue, it has a rich history dating back to the beginnings of Christianity.

It was indeed the place, where Mary Jacobe, Mary Salome and Mary Magdalene landed after their flight from Palestine.

The ‘three Maries’ escaped persecution to which Christians were subject in the Holy Land, however, were forced into exile.

The Romans sent them away on a makeshift raft that drifted across the Mediterranean.

It eventually ran aground on the shore of Camargue, in a place known as oppidum-râ or Notre-Dame-de-Ratis (ratis in Gallic menat raft).

The place became known as Notre-Dame-de-la-Barque, then Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer until 1838, when it its name was changed to Saintes-Marie-de-la-mer.

The Christian tradition has it that the three Maries landed with several companions.

Among those were Martha, Lazarus, Maximin of Bethany, Sidonius and Joseph of Arimathea, the bearer of the Holy Grail.

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Saintes Maries ex voto

All these characters set off across what is now France in order to spread the Christian doctrine.

The three Maries remained in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, where they died and were buried.

According to another version, Mary Magdalene left Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

She retired in a cave in the mountains of La Baume, in the department of Var, where she was buried.

This version appeared in 1279, when a sarcophagus was discovered in the crypt of the church of St. Maximin in La Baume.

The many miracles that occurred on the site led the church to recognize it as Mary Magdalene’s tomb.

St. Maximin-de-La-Baume immediately became a place of pilgrimage.

The Christian tradition also tells that the three Maries and their companions were met by Sara la Noire when they landed on the shore of Camargue.

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Saints’ shrine

Sara became their servant.

Mary Jacobe, Mary Salome and Sara la Noire were buried near the oratory they had founded.

Their graves became an important place of pilgrimage and a stopover on the Way to Santiago de Compostela.

The oratory became too small, as it attracted worshipers from the whole Christendom, and was replaced by a church.

The tradition of the three Maries dates from the beginnings of Christianity.

However, it only spread throughout the kingdom of France through the Légende Dorée – Golden Legend.

Légende Dorée – Golden Legend

This book, written in the 1260s by the Archbishop of Genoa, chronicles the lives of about 150 Christian saints and martyrs.

The pilgrimage to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer became so popular, that by 1343 the Pope established their celebration on May 25 and October 22.

The cult of Mary Magdalene, initially associated with the other two Maries, was transferred to St. Maximin-de-la-Baume.

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Saintes Maries in their boat

The legend of Sara, unlike that of the three Maries, only appeared in 1521 in the Légende des Saintes-Maries – The legend of the three Mary.

The saints’ relics were ‘invented’ at the same time in order to make the most of the worshipers’ infatuation.

Bones, supposed to be theirs, were thus exhumed.

Those of Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe were placed in luxurious caskets.

Those of their maid Sara were gathered in a humble wooden box and placed in a crypt to the right of the altar.

The Church fixed the celebrations of Mary Jacobe on May 25, Marie-Salome’s on October 22, and a third time on December 3.

The procession to the sea, with the two saints placed on a boat, took place in May and October.

The celebration of Sarah Black was fixed for May 24.

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Oreillers des Saintes

The three carved marble steles found under the heads of the skeletons were declared as oreillers des Saintes – Saints’ Pillows.

Two were funerary steles, the 3rd was a taurobolic altar.

Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer site has been inhabited since ancient times.

Some vestiges, uncovered in the sea off the shore of the village, show that the area was in fact already inhabited during prehistory.

Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer then became a place of worship dedicated to the three Celtic Matres, the Goddesses of Fecundity.

The steles were in fact connected to their cult.

The excavations uncovered also a temple dedicated to Artemis and built by the Phoenicians who founded Marseille around 600BC.

The Romans, who colonized Provence in the 2nd century BC, dedicated the temple to Juno, the Goddess of Marriage and to Mithra the divinity of Covenant and Oath.

The Christian Church later superimposed its traditions on the pagan’s, and thus transformed the steles of the three Matres into the Pillows of the Three Maries.

Sara la Noire

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Sainte Sara in the crypt of Notre Dame de la Mer

The legend of the three Maries and Sara is obviously closely linked to the sea.

Sara la Noire – Black Sara, became Sainte Sara, the Patron Saint of the Gypsies.

There are two versions of her origins.

The Christian Church always regarded her as the black servant of the three Maries.

But according to another tradition, Sara was of noble origin and came from High Egypt.

She would even have been repudiated by King Herod, and converted to the religion of Abraham.

The legend of Sara, unlike that of the three Maries, appears only in 1521 in the Légende des Trois Maries.

However, the cult of Sainte Sara went virtually unnoticed until 1800!

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Sainte Sara

It was not until 1936 that the Gypsies began the tradition of the procession to the sea, during which they immerse the statue of Sara up to the waist.

This tradition of immersion is of course related to the legend of the Maries landing on the shores of Camargue and disembarking into the water.

This rite is also inherited from Pagan rites associated with the purification of body and soul.

The Mediterranean sea played obviously an important role in the South of France.

It was indeed a major source of life, food and transport.

Some historians believe that the Gypsies, a nomadic tribe originally from India, adopted Sara la Noire because of her similarities with Kali, the Indian back Goddess of Creation, Sickness and Death.

The Indians also immerse Kali in the water!

Gypsy pilgrimage to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

Sainte Sara’s worship gave rise to an annual pilgrimage and major religious event for the Gypsy community.

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Gypsy procession

The Gypsy pilgrimage to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer takes place on May 24 and 25.

It attracts Gypsies from all over Europe, however, it has existed under its current format since 1935.

The first Gypsies, who arrived in France at the beginning of the 15th century, discovered the pilgrimage to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, which was then only dedicated to the three Maries.

The ‘invention’ of the Saintes Maries’ relics in 1438 appears to have triggered the cult of Sara la Noire, which they immediately associated with Kali.

Gypsies traveled in horse-drawn trailers and traveled in groups throughout France.

People were wary of them, because they associated them with the gangs of robbers who raided the country.

They started to give them some money, in order to keep them at bay.

In 1521 Sara was officially recognized as a saint and integrated in the pilgrimage of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Gypsies therefore made a tradition of coming once a year in Les Saintes Maries d ela Mer in order to worship her.

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Gypsies during the procession

People eventually replaced money with wine in lieu of payment.

These Gypsy gatherings gave rise to joyous celebrations including songs and dances.

The pilgrimage to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer was interrupted during the French Revolution.

Many legends of miracles and healing attributed to Sainte Sara were invented in 1800 in order to revive it.

However, the village was deserted in the decades that followed, because of an outbreak of malarial fevers that spread throughout Camargue.

The Gypsies stopped coming until the outbreak was halted.

They returned in 1852, but gathered along the other pilgrims.

The opening of the railway line revived the pilgrimage and led to the mass return of worshipers and gypsies with their trailers.

Marquis Folco de Baroncelli-Javon

Their presence was so pervasive and poorly perceived by the locals, that in 1895 the commune issued a decree prohibiting their presence during the May celebrations.

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Carrying the Cross

The Marquis Folco de Baroncelli-Javon, a native of Avignon, who was passionate about Provencal traditions, introduced the pilgrimage to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer as we know it today.

It was also at that time that the celebrations were fixed to May 24-25.

In 1904 the marquis founded the Mas de l’Amarée, one of the largest properties in Camargue.

He introduced the breeding of fighting bulls and created the herdsmen locally known as guardians.

Guardians rode their gray horses at the processions of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

These were soon joined by the Arlésiennes wearing their local costume.

These colorful religious and folk processions became so popular with the crowds, that in 1921 the bishop of Aix authorized a gypsy Mass in the crypt where Sara’s casket lies.

After a long battle, the Marquis also obtained for the cult of Sainte Sara to be recognized by the Church.

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Gypsy camp in 1927

On May 25, 1935, Gypsies obtained the right to carry Sara and partially immersed her statue in the sea during the procession of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

This procession takes place, though, on the eve of the procession of the three Maries.

This pilgrimage to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer has become more and more popular over the years,.

It has indeed become a major religious event bringing together the international Gypsy community.

It has consequently become a unique tourist phenomenon, which, each year, attracts thousands of tourists.

Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer Romanesque church

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Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer

The church, built between the 9th and 12th centuries, dominates the legendary site.

At the time of its construction, the shore was regularly attacked by pirates and invaders.

The Eglise Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer des Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer was therefore heavily fortified.

The roofs are protected by ramparts with battlements and manicholations and initially served as a watchtowers.

The church was then a refuge for people in times of danger as it even contains a fresh water well!

The building is not really elegant, but it is very imposing and stunning.

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Coordinates for Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer: Lat 43.453241 – Long 4.429074

Photos via Creative Commons – Aerial view by Jean-Louis Vandevivère is licensed under  CC BY-SA 2.0Saintes Maries’ casket Saintes Maries in their boat by Daniel Villafruela are licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0  – Gypsy procession – Gypsies during the processionritual bathCarrying the CrossMaries’ shrine by Fiore S. Barbato are licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0  – Gypsy camp in 1927 by Unknown Public domainSainte Saraoreillers des SaintesSaintes Maries ex voto  by abrocke are licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0Sainte Sara close-up by Armin Kübelbeck is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 –  Notre Dame de la Mer by Joan is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0