Ste-Madeleine, Saint Maximin la Sainte Baume
The new church and the Dominican convent were begun in 1295 and intended for the waves of pilgrims who were passing by. The choir and the first bay on the eastern side were finished in 1316, another five nave bays were not completed until 1404. In the last building period between 1508 and 1532 the western parts were added, while the facade and central doorway remained unfinished or temporary. A planned bell-tower to the right of the doorway was not built. The staircase tower at the southern end was not completed until later and serves as a bell-tower.The French Revolution drove out the Dominicans; however Lucien Bonaparte, President of the local Jacobin club, set up a reinforcement camp here and thereby saved the building. Even the preservation of the huge organ can be attributed to Lucien; when the pipes were due to be melted down, he is supposed to have demanded that the Marseillaise should be played on the organ (although there is no mention of this in his memoirs).
Ste Madeleine - Exterior
The tranquil little town of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume is dominated by the massive structure of Ste-Madeleine, this, the largest and most important Gothic church in Provence. The building, which measures 79m/259ft along its external length, is completely unified in its conception, despite the many years which it took to construct. Immediately striking are its flat silhouette, which is barely interrupted by any vertical lines, the enormous buttresses which flank the nave and the choir, and the complete absence of the usual Gothic decorations. The austere simplicity might be explained by the building regulations of the Dominicans, but also by the country's Romanesque tradition.
Simple, but at the same time giving an enormous impression of space, is the interior of Ste Madeleine, in Saint-Maxim-la-Sainte-Baume. (Measurements: width 37.2m/122ft, length of the central nave 72.6m/238ft, maximum height: central nave 28.7m/94ft, side aisle 17.5m/58ft, chapels 10.25m/34ft). Even here there are unusual features: there is no transept, nor does the choir have an ambulatory. Instead between the last bay of the central nave and the side aisles, polygonal chapels have been built in diagonally, though they are scarcely recognizable as such at first glance. The bays of the side aisles are continued into those of the chapels.The interior, which is divided into three levels and is well lit by what were originally 66 windows, is of balanced proportions, both vertically and horizontally. The keystones of the ribbed vaults are decorated with the coats of arms of the founders. The choir bay has no windows because of the staircase towers, with the result that the choir itself seems particularly light with its high, narrow windows.
Ste Madeleine - Fittings
In contrast to the architecture of Ste-Madeleine, the Baroque fittings are very opulent: the splendid main altar (end of 17th century), choir-stalls and screens made of walnut (1692), chancel (1756) with representations of the conversion and ecstasy of St-Mary Magdalene, the organ (by Isnard, 1773; one of the finest French organs of the 18th century). In the left apse there is a special item of interest, the Passion Altar of 1520 by the Fleming François (Antoine) Ronzen, who had earlier worked in Italy (Rome, Venice). The 22 panels depicting the Passion of Christ are also of interest because of their precise details of places and buildings (Venice, Rome; oldest known picture of the Papal Palace in Avignon).
St Louis of Anjou Chasuble
The chasuble (pluviale) of St Louis of Anjou (1274-1297, son of King Charles II of Naples, Bishop of Toulouse) shows in silk embroidery on a gold background 30 scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. It is stored in a display cabinet in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume.
The "germ-cell" of the Ste-Madeleine church in St Maximin-la-Ste-Baume is reached by a staircase (16th C.) from the north aisle (light-switch on the wall). This low room with barrel-vaulting (4.24 x 4.48m/14 x 14.5ft; formerly covered with marble), dating from the end of the fourth C./beginning of the fifth C., contains the sarcophagi, dating from the same period, of Mary Magdalene (made of fine-grained marble from the Sea of Marmara), St Maximin, Sidonius and Marcel and St Susanne. Their reliefs show scenes from the Old and New Testaments and are some of the oldest Christian documents in France. The reliquary bust of gilded bronze (1860) contains a skull, supposedly that of Mary Magdalene.
Ste Madeleine - Convent
The building of the Ste-Madeleine convent was begun at the same time as the basilica in 1296. The cloister, full of atmosphere, with its simple massive forms. dates from the 15th C. The chapter house and sacristy (ribbed vaults), which connect the cloister to the church, today house the Collège d'Echanges Contemporains (a cultural center; venue for concerts etc.) Prior to this, between 1859 and 1966 the Dominicans were again resident here.The cloister hostel dating from the 17th C is today the town hall.