At the Marseille History Museum is the first “portrait” of the city. This is a painting from the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries on which appears the oldest iconographic representation of the city. The author, unknown, included numerous elements of the Marseille landscape. In the background can be seen the Old Port, the Panier district, the historic heart of the city, the King René tower, which protects the entrance to the port, or the Garde spur which, at this period, is not yet topped by the Notre-Dame basilica. However, it is the first plan that matters most. There, a woman, haloed, addresses an assembly who listen to her piously. This woman is Marie Madeleine preaching to the people of Marseillais.
Here is the story, halfway between tradition and legend. A few years after the Ascension of Christ, the Jews forced Mary Magdalene, Martha, Lazarus and a few other disciples to board a ship without sails or oars, which would have been pushed out to sea. While everyone should have died drowned somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean, “the boat, guided by divine grace, fortunately arrived in the port of Marseille”, recounts the Dominican Jacques de Voragine, the author of the Golden Legend, 13th century work which relates the lives of the greatest saints.
“Madeleine’s Journey to Marseille” (1307), by Giotto, in Assisi, Italy. / Ghigo Roli/Photo12
On land, Mary Magdalene preached and performed miracles, thus convincing the people of Marseillais to adopt the new faith. Then, while Lazare became the first bishop of the city, Mary Magdalene withdrew into the hinterland. She settled in a cave – a “balm” in Provençal – where she lived withdrawn from the world for thirty years. Even today, many pilgrims go to the sanctuary of Sainte-Baume, in the Var, where they are welcomed by the Dominicans and friends of the place.
Victor, martyr of the last anti-Christian persecution of the Roman Empire
Although it is difficult to know precisely when this legend of Mary Magdalene appeared, Marseille historian and archaeologist Jean Guyon believes that it was formed well after the events it relates, around the 8th-9th centuries. Does this mean that it is a pure invention? “For a historian, it is almost impossible to prove that something did not happen,” explains this specialist in the early days of Christianity in Marseille. Still, it is highly improbable that Mary Magdalene actually landed in Gaul. »
After Mary Magdalene, the second great character in the early Christian history of Marseille is called Victor. The little that we know about him comes from two slightly different stories which relate his life and especially his death. Around 300, at the time of the last great anti-Christian persecution of the Roman Empire, Victor, sailor or soldier, was in Marseille. A Christian, he refuses to sacrifice to idols. Imprisoned, he must choose between death and renunciation of the Christian faith. Victor refuses to recant and even manages to convert his jailers. He is therefore put to death, perhaps by decapitation, perhaps by being quartered and crushed under a millstone, then his remains are thrown into the waters of the Old Port. The Marseille Christians recovered his body and buried the martyr outside the city, in an old stone quarry.
It is difficult, here again, to know what part of truth this story contains, which corresponds a little too closely to the canons of hagiography to be perfectly reliable… What is however proven is that Victor was indeed regarded as a saint by his contemporaries. Indeed, in what we call today the “crypts of Saint-Victor”, there are gathered numerous paleochristian sarcophagi sometimes placed on top of each other, which accumulate around a first burial, that of the martyr . At the end of Antiquity, it was not uncommon for Christians to be buried ad sanctos, “near the saints”, hoping thus to more easily ensure their salvation. Obviously, the Marseille Christians therefore wanted to rest in the immediate vicinity of the body of Saint Victor in order to benefit from his protection in the afterlife.
John Cassian, one of the founders of Western monasticism
A century and a half later, around 450, a basilica was built on the site of the necropolis to welcome pilgrims who went to the tomb of Saint Victor. In the 11th century, when an abbey was grafted onto the sanctuary, a high church was built above the original basilica, which thus became the “crypts” of the new building.
Today, if Saint-Victor Abbey is still one of the great monuments of Marseille, it is also the site of an important religious celebration specific to the Phocaean city. This takes place on Candlemas. At 5 a.m., the Bishop of Marseille, boarding a boat, arrived in the Old Port. The faithful come to meet him and a nightly procession sets off towards Saint-Victor. Once at the abbey, the bishop blesses the town and celebrates a mass. A little later, he went to a famous Marseille pastry shop, the “Four des shuttles”, to bless small traditional biscuits in the shape of boats – which could recall Mary Magdalene’s boat! – called “shuttles”. At Candlemas, like the rest of the year, the people of Marseillais prefer them to pancakes.
It has long been considered that it was John Cassian who built the Saint-Victor basilica. “The most recent archeological data does not point in this direction,” explains Jean Guyon. In truth, construction work probably began a few years after his death. » Founder of Saint-Victor or not, Jean Cassien is in any case the third great figure in the Christian history of Marseille during Antiquity. A Marseillais, Jean Cassien is not by birth, but by adoption. Born around 360, perhaps in what is now Romania, he spent several years in Palestine then in Egypt, where he learned about Eastern monastic traditions. A few years later, after stays in Constantinople and Rome, he settled in Marseille. It was the bishop of the city who invited him to settle there. He indeed hopes that John Cassian will develop in his city this new way of living as a Christian which appeared in the East and has not yet really spread to the West.
Jean Cassien does not disappoint him. From his arrival in Provence around 415 until the end of his life around 435, he tirelessly promoted monasticism. In Marseille, he founded two monasteries, one for men and one for women. Above all, he wrote several treatises in order to establish a model of monastic life. He first gives Monastic Institutions, “a work which sets out in such a simple way what the life of a monk should be like that one could subtitle it Monasticism for Dummies”, laughs Jean Guyon.
Next come the more demanding Conferences, a collection of interviews that John Cassian had with his spiritual masters. These were such a success that a second and then a third volume followed. A century later, Saint Benedict would rely on these writings to write his Rule. “John Cassian can therefore certainly be counted among the founders of Western monasticism,” believes the emeritus research director at the CNRS. Let us finally conclude with an anecdote with a Provençal flavor. At the request of Saint Benedict, the works of John Cassian were read assiduously in Benedictine monasteries. This reading being done while eating, the Collationes – the “Conferences” in Latin – of the illustrious Marseillais finally gave their name to the meals. With humor, Jean Guyon therefore notes that “to have a “snack” is to unknowingly pay homage to Jean Cassien”.
Exhibitions and visits
Until Sunday September 24, the exhibition “Le chemin de Marie Madeleine”, a pilgrimage path of the saints of Provence inaugurated in 2022 between the Saintes-Marie, is being held at the Major Cathedral in Marseille (Bouches-du-Rhône). -de-la-Mer and Sainte-Baume.
“At the sources of Christianity in Marseille”: free guided tours of the crypts and the upper church of Saint-Victor, in French and English, will be offered by the tour guides of the Friends of Saint-Victor on Friday September 22 (from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.); Saturday September 23 (10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.); Sunday September 24 (2 p.m. to 5 p.m.).
Clean. : Amisdesaintvictor.com
Until January 2024 at the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde church (Marseille), the exhibition “A pilgrimage in the Mediterranean”, in partnership with the CNRS, shows the importance of sanctuaries dedicated to Mary in Mediterranean, places of pilgrimage that attract faithful believers and people from different backgrounds, making these places unique places in the world where the experience of hospitality is lived.
A path to follow in the footsteps of Mary Magdalene
In May 2021, under the leadership of two Provençal associations – the Chemins des Saintes et Saints de Provence and the Association for Support of the Tradition of the Saints of Provence – with the assistance of the Southern region, the idea was born to relaunch the pilgrimage in the footsteps of Mary Magdalene, with the aim of attracting 30,000 pilgrims annually.
Starting from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (Bouches-du-Rhône), where the disciple of Jesus would have landed at the end of her navigation on the Mediterranean which followed her expulsion from Palestine, this path covers 222 km until at the Sainte-Baume cave, at Plan-d’Aups in the Var.
A map is published with the assistance of the French Hiking Federation. Its ten stages connect numerous municipalities on the Bucco-Rhodan coast, emblematic sites such as Saintes-Maries, Martigues, Marseille, Gémenos or Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, crossing the two regional natural parks of Camargue and Sainte-Marie. -Balm. The Sainte-Baume cave, where Mary Magdalene is said to have lived the last thirty years of her life, is a sanctuary entrusted to the Dominicans since the 13th century, who welcome pilgrims there.