The present day town is now called St Maximin and it
was to that town, just northeast of Marseilles, where we were headed.
I had promised our group of Magdalene seekers that we would find the
relic of her skull in the crypt of the once fine but now faded basilica
On my first visit to the basilica, I had located the
fabled skull at the end of a small cave-like room in the crypt. I remember
peering through the protective iron bars and seeing first a strange
helmet of golden locks cascading around “ her face.” The
locks joined at the area of her heart and formed a small cameo of Christ.
To those like myself not acquainted with the aesthetic of European Catholicism
– the effect was jarring. Here was an icon that was simultaneously
romantic and repulsive!
And in contrast to the golden locks, the skull was
black. Hmmm. Why wasn’t it white? I sought out the docent and
he patiently explained that the skull had darkened because decaying
flesh had adhered to the bone.
I was jarred yet again. The symbolism dealt by the vagaries of chance
was impossibly correct. That is, the Magdalene’s role was to play
out the sinner, mired in the “dark” world of the flesh,
in counterpoint to the ever-pure Virgin.
All these details ….
I explained to the group along with a description of the crypt and where
exactly we would find the skull. But when we arrived at the basilica
the skull of Mary Magdalene was upstairs next to the main altar. Held
aloft by a quartet of angels, it was sitting in a golden carriage surrounded
by bouquets of white lilies.
Joining the other pilgrims gathered around the skull, we gazed with
fascination at her gaping eyeholes and stubby teeth.
Within the crowd I noticed a face familiar from a recent TV documentary.
It was Susan Haskins, the Englishwoman who wrote Mary Magdalen:
Myth and Metaphor. She was there with her husband and a camerawoman
filming the feast day events for an upcoming BBC special on the Magdalene.
Later she would interview each of us for the film but now she acted
as our unofficial tour guide telling us that the skull was in the main
altar because it was to be processed that night, July 21st, throughout
the streets of St Maximin.
After agreeing to meet up later, we parted company and our group continued
exploring the basilica. The oratory, the traditional large wooden pulpit,
was particularly ornate and topped with a carved sculpture of the Magdalene
“in ecstasy,” a reference to the joy she experienced approaching
her death and the ultimate reunion with her beloved teacher and friend.
Behind the organ we found a painting of Mary Magdalene walking next
to Jesus on the way to Golgotha. Her hair as usual was long, wild and
red. But the width of her shoulders! This Magdalene was brawny with
large muscular arms, supporting a much smaller Jesus who was weighted
down by the cross. I was reminded of the alternative interpretation
of the word Magdalene. Most historians say the word refers to her birthplace
but others have suggested it is an epithet meaning “tower of strength.”
A half-hour away …
In the tiny village called the Hostelerie are other interesting and
remarkable portraits of Mary Magdalene. It was there we headed next,
piling back into our rented minivan for the winding and beautiful drive
up to the mountain of St Baume.
The Hostelerie is the base camp before the ascent to the grotto of Sainte
Baume. There is a cafe, a gift shop and a small Dominican chapel where
nuns come several times a day to pray to Mary Magdalene. In the chapel
are a series of murals painted by an artist named Montenard. They depict
a slender red headed woman standing at the edge of the sea talking to
fishermen who are listening in a state of pure rapture. Another painting
shows her in the wilderness with arms extended blessing a shepherd or
While the medieval legend insists on Magdalene as a fallen woman who
spent her life repenting in the grotto, these images around St Maximen
and St Baume depict another Magdalene, a woman of great courage, a teacher,
alone, empowered by her own visions and life experience. This rendering
of Mary Magdalene was not part of my Catholic education but surprisingly
this view of her has been consistently held within the Dominican tradition
since the 13th century. Susan Haskins told us she would be traveling
on to Italy to document similar such images within the Dominican monasteries.
And it was a Dominican ceremony we were about to witness next.
When we returned …
Mass was being said in the basilica of St Maximen and each of us was
given a small white candle surrounded by a little blue and white paper
lantern. Devotional Provencal singing began and, on cue, a group of
men approached the carriage and placed yet another golden facemask over
the skull. They hoisted her up and slowly carried her out of the church.
The candles were lit and after an enthusiastic but long-winded speech
by the mayor, the procession began snaking its way through the streets
of St Maximin.
The endpoint of the procession was the convent and when we arrived,
white robed nuns greeted all of us with high-spirited laughter. The
carriage was carried into the courtyard of the convent and set down
next to a large lit torch. Without much ado the facemask was yanked
off to reveal once again the blackened skull.
“She” was welcomed as the honored guest. A series of speeches
was directed to the skull. There was more singing, heart felt devotional
singing and the nuns played sweet and haunting music on recorders.
Amidst the flickering candlelight, I kept looking and looking again.
She seemed to be there, a fully present and authentic living energy.
I looked around, slightly embarrassed . Everyone in our group had an
expression of wonder and innocence on their faces.
No matter that the Magdalene had long been dead. No matter that the
skull may not have been hers. She was there. I thought I saw her row
of stubby teeth open and close. She was smiling. I am sure of it.
I knew she knew … her time had come. Finally, after almost two
thousand years, some of us, maybe many of us, were ready to acknowledge
her as the brilliant and enlightened being she truly had been.