Marseille

all photos: Ella Rozett

all photos: Ella Rozett

Notre Dame de confession

(Our Lady of Confession of Faith)

 In the crypt of the monastery church and basilica Saint Victor, Place Saint-Victor, 13007 Marseille, 78 cm, 1,02m, base included; 12-13th century copy of a more ancient statue. Painted walnut wood.

To explain this Black Madonna’s title we have to go back many centuries in history: The basilica that houses her was Marseille's first Christian shrine. Local legend of the Provence claims that Mary Magdalene was the same Mary as Mary of Bethanie, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, all close friends of Jesus. There is no Biblical or other evidence that Mary of Bethanie was the same person as Mary Magdalene. I think the claim simply stems from the pious desire to have more stories to flesh out the figure of Mary Magdalene and to be able to claim her as one’s local apostle of Christ.

The grotto of Lazarus and Mary "Magdalene" i.e. Mary of Bethanie.

The grotto of Lazarus and Mary "Magdalene" i.e. Mary of Bethanie.

So Mary of Bethanie (think: Mary Magdalene if you are from the Provence) fled from persecution in the Holy Land to Marseille with her brother Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, and her sister Martha. They landed in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, famous for its statue of black Sara-la-Kali, and went on to evangelize Marseille. When their persecutors caught up with them, they hid for a while outside the walls of the ancient city in the catacombs. Later “Magdalene” took up permanent residence in a cave in nearby Sainte-Baume. Remnants of those burial tunnels can be seen to this day in the crypt of Saint Victor. Among the underground tombs of the dead the friends of Jesus found a grotto, which they enlarged to serve as their “temple”. As more and more converts joined them, they expanded the underground tunnels and chapel.

That, at least, is the claim of a well researched book, published in 1864, of which I bought the last copy in Saint Victor’s gift shop in 2016.[1] The modern guides to the shrine no longer mention Mary Magdalene, but they do call the grotto the Confessional of St. Lazarus. Even the old book already laments that some people completely ignore the existence of the ancient grotto, sanctified by Lazarus and “Magdalene”. It recounts that since the 17th century a certain Dr. Launoy and others fought to erase the ancient traditions concerning the crypts of St. Victor.[2]

For three hundred years, Christians gathered at this grotto. Lazarus was buried in it[3] and later Saint Victor of Marseilles and his three companions. The latter four were soldiers in the Roman army and publicly denounced “idol worship”. They were killed for confessing their Christian faith around 290 A.D.

Once Christianity had become legal, Saint John Cassian (360-435 A.D.) erected a basilica over this holy burial place in 420-430 and called it Saint Victor. Its Madonna was called Our Lady of the Confession of the Martyrs, in honor of St. Victor and his companion martyrs.[4] Attached to the church were two monasteries, one for men and one for women. Of those original buildings only the church remains. It has become the crypt of the present day basilica. The very impressive, current abbey church was built in the 11th to 14th centuries.

Before dawn on her great feast day, the procession arrives back at her church. 

Before dawn on her great feast day, the procession arrives back at her church. 

the view from the upper church into the crypt

the view from the upper church into the crypt

According to an obscure French alchemists’ website, Our Lady the Green One is an old title of Our Lady of the Confession.[5] Normally I wouldn’t pay this much heed, but she certainly has a close relationship to the color green and she has another old title, which has fallen out of use. Ean Begg mentions it as: Our Lady of the Fennel or Our Lady of New Fire.[6] “Our Lady of the Fennel” is actually a misunderstanding of the old Provence dialect words ‘fue nou’ or ‘fuech noou’. They mean ‘new fire’, not ‘fennel’ or ‘fenouil’ in modern French. She was long called Our Lady of the New Fire, because on her feast day, Candlemas, the new fire for the candles was blessed, just like nowadays the new Easter fire for the Easter candle is blessed during the Easter vigil. People would then bring fresh wicks and oil lamps and take some of this “new fire” home. This old rite of blessing a fire connected with Mary (as well as one connected with Jesus) probably survived longer at St. Victor’s church than anywhere else.[7] It still echoes to this day in the green candles, which the faithful buy at the church on Candlemas to offer there and also take home.

What about the title the Green One? The easy explanation for it would be that she wears a green mantle, not so easily made out normally, because the colors are faded. However on her feast day, Candlemas, on February 2nd, her wooden green mantel is overlaid with a green cloth over coat and green candles are burnt and blessed in her honor.

But why green and why February 2nd? According to Roman legend King Numa Pompilius (753–673 B.C.E.) reorganized the Roman calendar by adding two months to the existing ten and making February the last month of the year. Many cultures end each year with some kind of purification ritual that is meant to clear away any negativity of the old year so one can have a fresh start into the new. The Romans were no exception. The word februarius (February) comes from the verb februare which means "to purify". The beginning of this month was dedicated to purifying ceremonies of atonement known as the "februales".

As so often, Mary helped the Church baptize a pre-Christian custom. In the Christian calendar February 2nd marks the “the purification of the Virgin” and “the presentation of Jesus in the temple”. According to Jewish law a woman was unfit to enter the temple for 40 days after giving birth to a son and for 80 days after giving birth to a daughter. (Leviticus 12:1-5) At the end of those periods she had to bring “a burnt offering (holocaust) and a sin offering” to a priest. He would sacrifice it in atonement for her. (For the sin of having given birth?! It’s just mind-boggling what patriarchs come up with!) Only then was she purified and “clean”. According to the gospel of Luke 2:22-40 Mary and Joseph fulfilled this law. Hence the name of the feast “the purification of the Virgin” – a perfect match for the Roman ferbruales!

The day became widely known as Candlemas, because to this day, it’s when priests bless the candles that will be used on the altar throughout the year and also any candles the faithful bring for blessings. In Marseille these candles are green, a color associated with rejuvenation and purification since antiquity. I guess in order for the human mind and soul to be rejuvenated, it must be purified. “The Romans had a great appreciation for the color green; it was the color of Venus, the goddess of gardens, vegetables and vineyards.”[8]

Les Navettes, the special boat-bread of the Black Madonna of Marseille

Les Navettes, the special boat-bread of the Black Madonna of Marseille

As to the Egyptian roots of the title The Green One: The Blessed Mother shares many titles with Isis, but Marseille is the only place I know of, where she may have been known as The Green One, closely reminiscent of Isis’ title ‘the lady of green crops’, ‘the green goddess (Uatchet)’. Interestingly, Isis also is called The Lady of Bread[9] and we see that special, sacred bread is distributed and venerated on Candlemas Day in Marseille. Many say that this bread in the form of a boat (a rather feminine looking one, if you ask me!) is a symbol of the boat of Isis, the papyrus boat in which she searched all over Egypt for the body parts of her slain husband.[10] She also sailed across the heavens on the solar barque of the sun god Ra. And so one of her many roles was to be the goddess of navigation, just as Mary became the Star of the Sea, the protector of sailors.


Footnotes

[1] Notice sur les Cryptes de L’Abbaye Saint-Victor-lez-Marseille: Precise Historique Description de ces Souterrains, Typographie Veuve Marius Olive, Marseille: 1864, pp. 8 - 10
[2] Ibid. p. IV-V
[3] Lazarus’ remains were moved to Autun around the 9th century.
[4] See the article “Candlemas at Saint Victor” on: http://www.marseille-tourisme.com/en/discover-marseille/tradition/christmas-time/
[5] http://www.archerjulienchampagne.com/article-2181595.html
[6] (Begg, p. 197) http://www.archerjulienchampagne.com/article-2181595.html
[7] Notices sur les Cryptes, op. cit. p. 40-41.
[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green#In_the_ancient_world
[9] http://www.touregypt.net/isis.htm
[10] http://www.egyptianmyths.net/mythisis.htm

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