We visited La Madeleine on the Right Bank, the Neoclassic church at the head of the Rue Royale.
The Basilique de la Madeleine, known to Parisians as La Madeleine, commands a central position in Paris both historically and geographically, and has an interesting but fragmented history. In the Middle Ages the Church owned the reclaimed swampland between the Palais Royale and the village of Roule. A small farming community settled here and came to be called Ville-l’Evêque, Bishop’s Town; a chapel was built and the Confraternity of Mary Magdalen established. In 1639 the chapel became the parish church, Saint Madeleine of Ville-l’Evêque.
A hundred years later Louis XV (possibly at the request of the parishioner Madame de Pompadour who lived nearby in the Elysée Palace) began a new church on the site of the now crumbling one, modeled on Saint Peter’s in Rome. The 1789 Revolution halted construction, and Napoleon ordered a Temple of Glory to his Grand Army.
With Napoleon’s defeat, Louis XVIII completed the design as an expiatory church in memory of the executed Louis XVI and his family, with “a statue of Saint-Mary-Magdalen, represented as a personification of France and in an attitude of repentance.” In 1845 La Madeleine was finally consecrated. Today, the church has become a beloved center of faith.
We climbed the broad stairs to the Roman columned portico and the massive bronze doors. Inside, from the foot of the center aisle, I paused to focus on the golden tabernacle on the high altar, the lit sanctuary candle, the soaring Magdalene, and the stunning apsidal fresco of the Resurrection, all at the far end of the gigantic nave.
The brass tabernacle doors depict Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the garden on Easter morning. It is a scene of recognition and adoration, two great pivotal experiences of Christianity. Above the tabernacle, a white sculpted Mary Magdalene dances with angels atop Mount Pilon in Provence.
Legend claims that Mary Magdalene, fleeing persecution in Jerusalem, sailed with Martha, Lazarus, Maximinus, Mary Jacobé, Mary Salomé, Sedonius, Sarah, Joseph of Arimathea, Zaccheus, and Veronica to Les Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer, west of Marseilles. Over the next thirty years, she preached in Provence and finally retired to a cave in the Ste-Baume Massif. Maximinus built a sanctuary in the valley, gave Mary last rites, and buried her there. In the seventh century, with the threat of Saracen invasions, monks moved her relics for safety: some were taken north to Vézeley, some buried deeper. In 1279, Charles of Anjou found her bones under the medieval St-Maximin Basilica erected over the earlier church. Today the head of Mary Magdalene can be seen in the basilica’s crypt.
Twenty minutes south, a wide path between tall crosses leads through a forest up to Mary Magdalene’s cave, set in a cliff overlooking the broad massif, now a grotto-chapel. Dominicans, residing in the valley below, care for the shrine. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved on an altar in the dark, surrounded by flaming candles. Behind the altar is the stone where Mary slept and prayed. In the far back of the cave, roses and votives sit at the base of her sculpted image. Thanksgiving plaques from pilgrims cover the dripping walls. Outside, a narrow trail ascends to Mount Pilon, where angels carried Mary to hear them sing.
Today, in her Paris shrine, a relic of Mary Magdalene is kept in a reliquary to the far right of the altar, against the south pilaster.
We stepped down the central aisle, and knelt before the tabernacle, praying our thanksgivings for the church, for Paris, and for the publication of my little book. The apse glowed with the Resurrection fresco of Christ, and Mary danced in ecstasy beneath, the powerful angels circling about her. The tabernacle gleamed. This was the purpose of art, I thought, the union of body and soul, portraying the reality of ecstasy.
Before leaving the sanctuary we left a copy of Offerings for the priest who spoke English here in the basilica, a Monseigneur Xavier de Tarragon, as a thank you for La Madeleine.
La Madeleine, 14 Rue de Surène, Place de la Madeleine, Paris;www.eglise-la.madeleine.com
Open Daily; Sunday Masses: 8 a.m., 9:30 a.m. (chants and organ), 11a.m. (Solemn with 2 organs and choir), 12:30 p.m., 6 p.m.; Weekday Masses: 7:45 a.m., 12:25 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Saturday Masses: 11 a.m., 6 p.m. (anticipated).
Churches nearby: The Expiatory Chapel (resting place of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette), St. Augustin (the home church of St. Charles de Foucauld), St. Roche. Foyer Madeleine (crypt café): 11:45-2:00, M-F.