Monday, 31 August 2009

Relics on holiday

Back from holiday in France - the tan is already fading and the prospect of returning to work looms. Now that the days of motorcycle touring - historical blitzkriegs on two wheels - have gone, our family holidays are a compromise. I trade sitting on a beach in the afternoons with a spot of cultural tourism in the mornings. For a staunch ex-Catholic this means that I visit a surprising number of churches - even the dullest market town can usually be relied on to have a a historic church. Here's a fairly typical example:

On one particularly hot day we were in Saint Maximin - the gothic basilica there is built on a much earlier Gallo-Roman church and surprisingly for somewhere that is a place of pilgrimage the church is simple and uncluttered inside. On a hot day with its tall cool walls, the high vaulted ceiling, the light diffracted through the windows, and the waft of incense you can understand how, from the point of view of a sweaty, stinky and simple medieval peasant, a sense of spirituality was easily conjured up.

But before you get carried away with this - go and have a look at the crypt which contains the principal reason for the basilica's existence - the relics of Mary Magdalene.
There's a big cult of Mary Magdalene in Provence, apparently she brought Christianity to the area having been cast adrift in a boat from Palestine along with her brother Lazarus. According to the legend the boat had neither sails nor rudder so it was from any point of view a stroke of luck that she made it there.

It was also quite a stroke of luck that when Charles of Anjou in the 13th Century decided to build a church and a Dominican monastery at Saint Maximin, he should unearth a much earlier chapel containing a sarcophagus with the remains of Mary Magdalen. By a previous legend these relics had been somewhere up north in Burgundy, but conveniently there was an inscription explaining that they had been hidden there from the Saracens. The Saracens had of course raided Southern France and tended to take a dim view of the veneration of old bones thinking it all a bit primitive and barbaric, not to say idolatrous. Anyway, presumably Charles couldn't believe his luck so he built a huge basilica which attracted pilgrims for centuries (and maybe these days Da Vinci code conspiracy nuts). In the process he and the Dominicans* undoubtedly did very well out of the whole thing.

A typical medieval tale really - a bit harder to compute is that apparently to this day every July the grotesque relic is taken out the crypt and paraded around. Maybe those Saracens had a point.

*(As a side note; the old Jewish quarter of the town remains, not far from the basilica, along with a plaque explaining that the Jews lived here until the 15th century under the protection of the Dominicans - given the role of the Dominicans as the storm-troopers of the Holy Inquisition you can guess that this was probably a mafiosi style of 'protection').

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