In the town of Saint-Maximin-la-Saint-Baume is located one of the most beautiful basilicas in all of Provence. The outside unfortunately needs quite a bit of work, but once you step inside it is wondrous to behold.
The construction of the basilica began in 1295 A.D. and the Gothic style was chosen by Charles II d’Anjou. It was he who discovered the tomb and relics of Mary Magdalene in 1279 A.D which had been buried since 716 A.D. The relics were hidden there as protection from the Sarrasins who were pillaging and devastating the region at the time. It is said that Mary Magdalene spent many years in Penance in the Grotte de la Sainte Baume (also known as La Sainte-Baume Grotte Marie Madeleine) located in the hills above Saint-Maximin-la-Saint-Baume. The crypt of the basilica, which was built in 1316 A.D., contains an ancient Gallo-Roman tomb of the fourth century and four beautiful marble sarcophagi decorated with scenes of the Christian religion and allegedly contains the skull of St. Mary Magdalene. You are allowed down into the crypt to see the sarcophagi and the skull. It is quite an eerie feeling, I must say. Is this really the skull of Mary Magdalene? I couldn’t tell you, of course, but it has been legend for many centuries and the Catholic Church believes it to be so.
In 1348 A.D. due to the plague, construction stopped for a while on the basilica. Work started again in 1404 A.D. All construction was halted in 1532 A.D. after 237 years of being worked on. Due to this, the front doors to the church and the bell tower were never finished.
The basilica’s dimensions are superior to those of the other churches in the region. It measures 73 meters long, 37 meters wide and 26 meters high.
Behind the alter is the seventeenth century work of art entitled “The Glory”. It was sculpted by Joseph Lieutaud. It represents the Holy Trinity who is surrounded by angels. The walls of the choir area were carved from 1681 to 1692 in walnut wood by Vincent and Jean-Baptiste Funel Oleri who were brothers. It contains 94 stalls and 22 medallions depicting the life of the Dominicans and is one of my most favorite things about the church. The delicacy in which these two very talent brothers carved these masterpieces is unreal and rivals none in my opinion. There are also many angels atop the choir area and a large crucifix above the main door leading to the main alter which was installed in 1676 and made of marble. The pulpit was carved in 1756 by Brother Louis Gudet and is made of walnut. It contains seven medallions depicting scenes from the life of St. Mary Magdalene.
The basilica is also home to a magnificent organ. The order of the Dominicans wanted an organ present in the church that would match the magnitude of the basilica itself. They got their wish.
From 1772 A.D. to 1774 A.D, Jean-Esprit Isnard and his nephew Joseph constructed the organ which now resides in the basilica. It is immense and matches very well the size of the church and like the carvings in the choir area, the organ is absolutely marvelous.
I could spend hours in this church just gazing at all the little intricate details that are present. It is truly a work of art in and of itself.