The Basilica of St. Maximin, Provence and Mary Magdalen’s Relics

We  drove in to the village of St. Maximin this morning to see the basilica and the relics of Mary Magdalene, past colorful market stalls selling Provencal skirts and linens, winding our way behind the church to a large parking lot.

The story of the discovery of Mary Magdalen’s relics begins in 1254 when King Louis (Saint Louis), visited the Saint-Maximin oratory as he returned from the seventh crusade, also making a pilgrimage up to the grotto of Sainte-Baume.  He asked his nephew, Charles of Anjou, Count of Provence, to investigate the strong tradition that Mary was buried under the oraory.  The original alabaster sarcophagus remained, but it was empty, for the relics had been hidden from invaders and never found.

Charles initiated excavations and in 1279, digging between existing tombs of the first-century graveyard that had been covered over the years, creating an oratory, making the graveyard the crypt and the oratory above used by the few monks in the adjoining Cassianite priory.  After many attempts, they found a marble sarcophagus near the (empty) alabaster one said to be Mary Magdalen’s.  When it was opened a lovely scent filled the air.  Charles immediately closed it and sealed it, to open later in the presence of reliable witnesses, both secular and ecclesiastical.  When the tomb was opened several weeks later, they witnessed a full-body skeleton, with only the lower jawbone missing, but hair remaining.  A bit of flesh on the forehead remained as well, and many conjecture that this is the place Christ touched her in the garden after his resurrection, asking her not to touch him (”Noli me tangere”), and the flesh has stayed attached until the mid-eighteenth century.  In 1780 it was placed in a glass reliquary and displayed in the crypt.

Also discovered was a tablet coated in wax, which stated in Latin, Hic requiescat corpus Mariae Magdalenae (Here lies the body of Mary Magdalen.)  The body was placed in a silver reliquary and the head in a gold bust for pilgrims to see.  Charles wanted to establish Dominicans to care for the shrine, and in 1295 he received permission from Boniface VIII.  When Boniface saw the lower jawbone missing he recalled the Magdalen relic in his own Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome.  The lower jawbone fit perfectly, and the Pope declared the relics to be those of Mary Magdalen.  Charles began to erect an basilica over the oratory in 1295.

And Charles erected an immense basilica.  St. Maximin is the largest Gothic structure in southeast France with three naves and fan vaults, measuring 73 by 37 meters (about 220 x 115 feet) and 29 meters (88 feet) at the highest point.  It rises from the broad plain of the Var, amidst vineyards, olive orchards, and lavender fields, and can be seen for miles.

We entered and paused to take in the fan vaulting and long naves, the quiet stone, then, off the north transept, we descended to the crypt, the fifth-century oratory.  The skull was behind a glass and a grill, ensconced in gold.  The small phial with the bit of flesh was there as well, with the label, Noli me tangere.  I prayed, Santa Maria Madeleine, prions pour nous.  I turned to the other coffins in the small crypt, the sarcophagus of Sidonius (the man born blind, in the Gospel story), Bishop Maximin, and Holy Innocents.

Above, Charles’ basilica held many accumulated treasures through the centuries, paintings and bas-reliefs of the stories of Mary Magdalen.  In these images, and with the small phial in the crypt, I am reminded that she is indeed a resurrection saint, and the sad, penitential side to her story has been, I believe, over-emphasized by medieval chroniclers.  Of course she repents, for one does this to be saved, one does this to see the Lord on Easter morning, one does this to go out and preach the good news of Christ’s, and our own, resurrection.

Archeologists have recently examined Mary’s relics, and have stated the bones are of a slim woman of about fifty years of age.  Unfortunately bones cannot be carbon-dated.

I left the basilica in St. Maximin thankful that such things can be seen, that the stories are verified, that men and women today still seek the truth about these early years of the Church.


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