November 28, 2015

The Sainte Baume

The Sainte Baume (click to enlarge)
Photo courtesy of  BACKYARDPROVENCE

Last night while attending a conference on medieval studies, I heard the speaker touching on a subject I happen to be quite fond of, the Sainte Baume, which is a sanctuary in Southern France, in Provence. I first stumbled upon that place almost by chance—and suddenly fell in love with it—several years ago. Since then I went back a couple of times, and always enjoyed the magic of the location.

Most of the charm of the Sainte Baume comes from an old legend or tradition, according to which Mary Magdalene, her brother Lazarus, her sister Martha, Martha’s maid Martilla, Maximinus, one of the Lord’s seventy-two disciples, and Cedonius, expelled by persecutions from the Holy Land, traversed the Mediterranean Sea in a frail boat and landed at the place called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, near Arles. Then they traveled by land to Massilia (Marseille). Here is how Jacobus de Voragine tells the story:

Then fourteen years after the passion and ascension of the Lord, long after the Jews had killed Stephen and expelled the rest of the disciples from Judean territory, the disciples went off to spread the word of the Lord in the various regions inhabited by the Gentiles. At that time blessed Maximinus, one of the Lord’s seventy-two disciples, was with the apostles, and it was to his care that Peter had entrusted Mary Magdalene. When the disciples went their separate ways, the blessed Maximinus, Mary Magdalene, her brother Lazarus, her sister Martha, Martha’s maid Martilla, and the blessed Cedonius, who had been blind from his birth but was cured by the Lord together with many other Christians, were put on board ship by unbelievers and set adrift on the sea without pilot so that they should be all drowned. But by God’s will they reached Marseilles. There they found nobody prepared to take them in, so they sheltered under the portico of a shrine where the people of the region worshipped. When the blessed Mary Magdalene saw the people streaming to the shrine to sacrifice to their idols, she got up, quite calmly, and with a serene expression on her face and with measured words, began to turn them from their idol worship and with great single-mindedness to preach the Gospel of Christ. Everyone there admired her for her beauty, for her eloquence and for her sweet manner of speaking. And it is no wonder that the lips which had pressed kisses so loving and so tender on our Lord’s feet should breathe the perfume of the word of God more copiously than others.
[The Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voragine]

The Sainte Baume
(Click to enlarge)
After this, Mary Magdalene is said to have retired to a cave on a hill by Marseille, La Sainte-Baume (“Holy Cave”, baumo in Provençal), where she spent the last thirty years of her life.

The route to the Sainte Baume is very beautiful and scenic. Leaving the nice village of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, the road winds its way up the hill. Pilgrims and visitors must park their car in the Hostellerie de La Sainte Baume, which is run by the Dominican sisters. From the old Hostellerie, which stands alone in a wooded valley, a path leads to the austere cliff and the sanctuary carved in the mountain.

As I already touched on, every detail of the sanctuary, starting from the physical characteristics of the site itself, has its own magic, but there are no words, or pictures, or videos that can capture the essence and beauty of the place. You just have to go there!

Ah, I almost forgot—when I first went there it was the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, July 22, as I realized once I was there and unexpectedly got involved in the celebrations...


  1. What a lovely post! We were in Provence over a decade ago. I wish we had known of this place. Thanks for the introduction. Our world is truly wonderful with its history and so many places to discover.

    1. Thank you Diana, I'm glad you enjoyed the post.
      La Sainte Baume is one of those magical places one stumbles upon by accident and returns to again and again...