Grotte de Sainte-Baume

Sanctuaire de la Sainte-Baume - Grotte de Sainte-Marie-Madeleine


Useful Information

Location: Nans-le-Pins, Departement Var. 45 minutes walk uphill.
(43.326967, 5.764195)
Open: 28-MAR to 31-OCT Mon 7:30-18:30, Tue-Sun 6:30-18:30.
Mass daily 11, Vespers Mon-Sat 18, Sun 16:30.
01-NOV to 27-MAR daily 8:30-17.
Mass daily 11, Vespers daily 16:30.
[2020]
Fee: free, donations welcome.
[2020]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave
Light: electric.
Dimension:  
Guided tours: self guided. V=200,000/a [2000]
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography:  
Address: Grotte de Sainte Marie Madeleine et circuit de la Sainte Baume, 2200, CD 80 Route de Nans, 83640 - Plan-d'Aups-Sainte-Baume, Tel: +33-442-04-54-84. E-mail:
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

816 visited by Pope Stephen VI.
878 visited by Pope John VIII.
22-JUL-1254 Saint Louis visits Sainte-Baume on his return from the Crusade.
1279 Charles II of Anjou, King of Sicily and Count of Provence, orders the excavation of the relics of Mary Magdalene.
09-DEC-1279 burial of Mary Magdalene discovered at Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume.
1288 basilica built to house the relics.
21-JUN-1295 papal bull entrusts the young order of the Dominicans the charge of the holy places.
1332 Philippe VI of Valois, King of France, Alfonso IV of Aragon, Hugues of Cyprus, and Jean of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia gather in the cave.
1440 fire destroys buildings.
1586 cave looted.
1592 cave looted again, despite the drawbridge which was erected after the first looting.
1814 cave destroyed by Marshal Brune.
1822 church restored.
1848 visited by Father Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, famous preacher and restorer of the Dominican order in France.
1859 Dominican brothers reinstalled.
1997 cave church closed due to rockfall.
2002 reopened after cleaning of the rock face.
23-JUN-2020 access to the Sainte Marie-Madeleine cave is prohibited for risk of landslide.
28-MAR-2021 scheduled reopening.

Description

photography
Grotte de Sainte-Baume, Provence, France. Public Domain.

The Grotte de Sainte-Baume or Grotte de Sainte-Marie-Madeleine is a small cave located in a mountain ridge in the hinterland east of Marseilles. It is located in the lower end of a limestone cliff and accessible only on foot from the valley below. The town below is Plan-d'Aups-Sainte-Baume in the Var, and the mountains are called the Sainte-Baume massif. This place is according to tradition the place where Saint Mary Magdalene retreated after she evangelized the Provence. It was her hermitage for 30 years until she died. It became a major place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages and is a Dominican monastery with a cave church until today. Nevertheless it went up and down, the place was raided and destroyed several times, and always it was rebuilt. It was visited by eight popes, eleven kings, and four rulers of France.

According to the four canonical gospels, Mary Magdalene (also Mary of Magdala) traveled with Jesus as one of his followers. She was a witness to his crucifixion, his burial, the first to witness the empty tomb, and the first to witness Jesus's resurrection. She is mentioned by name twelve times, which is more than most of the apostles and more than any other woman in the Gospels.

According to tradition, Mary Magdalene was expelled from Palestine with several disciples during the first persecutions against Christians after Pentecost. They boarded a frail skiff without sail or rudder, but nevertheless miraculously reached the Provence shores at Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. She started to spread Christianity preaching in Marseilles in the company of Lazarus.

This legend started with the discovery of a skeleton by monks of the Abbey of la Madaleine in Vézelay in Burgundy. They claimed to have discovered Mary Magdalene's actual skeleton. First, in 1050, its existence was only claimed, but in 1265 the monks "discovered" it in a spectacular show. The bones were brought before the King of France in 1267, who venerated them.

But in 1279 another purported burial of Mary Magdalene was discovered at Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. Those stories were not only hallucinated by sleep and food deprived monks, they were also a weapon in high politics. The excavation was ordered by Charles II, King of Naples. It all fitted, there was a marble shrine, and it even had an explanatory text on a parchment. How convenient. Charles II commissioned the building of a new Gothic basilica on the site and the town was exempt from taxes. That's one successful marketing stunt.

Mary Magdalene is a good marketing icon until today. Despite continually decreasing numbers of members in traditional churches, the church at Sainte Baume has more than 200,000 visitors every year. Quite impressive for a small church which is only accessible after a 45 minutes walk uphill.

Unfortunately we have much less information on the cave and the church. Obviously the mountains along the mediterranean coast are mostly limestone. There is an abundance of caves, karst caves with stalactites and stalagmites. In Roman times, Sainte-Baume was the sacred mountain of the Marseillais, worshipping Artemis of Ephesus. The poet Lucain mentions around 60 a certain “sacred wood” near Marseille, but that it refers to the forests at Sainte-Baume is just a guess. After St. John Cassian founded a monastery in Marseilles, the grotto of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine becomes a famous Christian pilgrimage site.

This cave is rather big, the church is completely inside the cave, the cave portal was closed by a wall which is now the facade of the cave church. Inside the cave goes up, and so there are different plateaus and staircases connecting them. The cave is 29m long and 24m wide, the ceiling is between 4m and 6m high. The terace on the right side is called Rocher de la Pénitence (Rock of Penance) and according to legend that's where Mary spent most of the 30 years on her knees. The cave is dripping water, the origin of the name Grotte Pleureuse (weeping Grotto). And finally there is a spring at the altar, the water has healing properties and was drunken by average people and by Medieval high society.