Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Basilica of St Maximin in Provence

Today is the feast of St Maximin, an early bishop of Aix-en-Provence in southern France. Nothing is really known of his history, not even the years in which he lived, but he became an important figure in the later medieval legend of St Mary Magdalene and her siblings. According to the story, first attested only in the second millennium, when the early Church was “scattered” after the martyrdom of St Stephen (Acts 8), the persecutors set Mary, Martha, Lazarus and many others in a rudderless boat, thinking it would sink and drown them. They were instead brought by divine intervention to the port city of Marseille, of which Lazarus became the first bishop; among their companions were Maximin and Sidonius, the former said by local tradition to have also been the boy whose loaves and fishes were multiplied by Christ (John 6), and the latter said to be the blind man healed in John 9. After years of living a contemplative life in the cave known as the Sainte-Baume (still a popular pilgrimage place to this day), the dying Magdalene received the Viaticum from St Maximin, who then took care of her burial.

The Basilica of St Maximin, seen from the back. The rood-screen which separated the liturgical choir and main altar from the nave is not only still preserved, but manifestly a work of the 16th or 17th century, not medieval. The parish priest explained to me that because the village around the church was so small, there was no need to open it up to the faithful, who would have attended Mass at the many other altars in the church.
I recently had the great pleasure of attending and giving a lecture at the Pro Civitate Dei summer school, sponsored by the Fraternity of St Joseph the Guardian in La-Londe-Les-Maures, about 100 km to the east of Marseille. During the week, we visited the basilica dedicated to St Maximin in a small village named for him about 25 miles to the east of Aix, in which the putative skulls of both Mary Magdalene and Sidonius are kept. (Maximin’s relics are in Aix itself, north of Marseille.) The church became a major pilgrimage center at the end of the 13th century, directly under the patronage of the King of France, and entrusted to then fairly new Dominican Order; the Dominicans left the church in 1957, and it is now under the diocesan clergy of Fréjus-Toulon. (We also visited the Sainte-Baume; I will post my photos of that on Mary Magdalene’s feast day in July.)

The relic of St Mary Magdalene’s skull preserved in the crypt. 
Legend has it that when the relic of the skull was translated, the piece now kept in this smaller reliquary fell off it, because it was the place where Christ touched Mary’s forehead when He said to her “Do not touch me.”
The retable of the altar at the end of the left nave, showing episodes of the Passion of Christ, painted by Flemish artist Antoine Ronzen, 1517-20.
The relic of St Sidonius’ skull.
The preaching pulpit in the middle of the nave is decorated with an image of the Magdalene in ecstasy, another story from her medieval legend according to which she was daily rapt up into heaven during the many years when she lived at the Sainte Baume.
Each choir stall has over it a beautiful carved panel showing a Dominican Saint; here is Pope St Pius V praying for victory at the Battle of Lepanto, a victory which he learned of supernaturally at the moment it took place.
The main altar
The back of the rood-screen seen from inside the choir.

The vaulting seen from inside the choir.
The parish priest celebrated a Votive Mass of St Mary Magdalene for the students and lecturers of Pro Civitate Dei.
The incomplete façade of the church.

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