Provence, France was one of the first places in Gaul to become Christian and some of the earliest baptisteries in France are found here. In the Middle Ages, there was a significant Jewish community; more recently it has acquired a Muslim population. Both of these have added to the variety of Provencal religious buildings.
Provence has a trio of great medieval abbeys built by the Cistercian order: Silvacane, Sénanque and Thoronet, sometimes referred to as "the three sisters of Provence." Pictured above is Sénanque, founded in 1148.
Six million visitors converge on the town of Lourdes each year from 140 countries, most of them for religious reasons rather than sightseeing or curiosity. In numerical terms, Lourdes is almost as popular as the Eiffel Tower and the Riviera. Lourdes is where a fourteen-year-old girl was collecting bones and branches by a river when she met a stranger by the mouth of a cave, now believed to be a vision of the Virgin Mary. Today, people visit the spot where St. Bernadette had her vision of Mary because they believe the water issuing from the cave can effect miraculous, holy cures.
Caverns are strange, atmospheric spaces whether or not they were frequented by human beings. They can give you the sensation of being in the womb of the earth--even if you are part of a guided group. Most of the caves in France--prehistorically painted or not--are in the southwest. The Grottes de Bétharram is pictured above.
Along with the Holy Grail, the other most searched for lost sacred object is the Ark of the Covenant, the chest containing the tablets of the Ten Commandments, as described in the book of Exodus. It is shown in the mosaic on the east apse of the church of Germigny-des-Prés.
Notre Dame is a stunning cathedral, full of many intricate and intriguing details. For example, if you stand in front of the west facade of Notre Dame Cathedral, to the left and right of the central door (the Portal of the Last Judgment), 31 panels are arranged in two rows along the base of the facade at convenient viewing height. A bas relief near the bottom of the column separating the two doors of the Portal of the Last Judgment shows "Cybele" or "Lady Philosophy." She has her feet on the earth but her head in the clouds. A ladder placed against her symbolizes the connection between the two. In her right hand she holds two books. One is open indicating exoteric worldly knowledge, the other half hidden behind it, pointing to esoteric wisdom, or wisdom gained through interior means.
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Ruins of the Templar Commanderie, Vaour
The initial purpose of the secret society Knights Templar was to protect pilgrims making their way to thecity of Jerusalem, which had been captured for Christendom in 1099 during the First Crusade. As monks, they took a vow of chastity and obedience to their grand master. As warriors, they earned a reputation as brave fighters, even though they lost many battles. When the prosperous order of Knights Templar was suppressed and prosecuted by the king of France in league with the Pope at the beginning of the 14th century, it was the start of history's longest running mystery story. Around the 1730s, the theory began spreding that the Templars had possessed some ancient secret that had been suppressed by the Establishment. People drew the conclusion that the Freemasons had inherited the secret of the Templars and continue on.
Basilica Sainte Marie Madeleine at Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume
According to a legend much told in Provence from at least the early Middle Ages, Mary Magdalene, disciple of Jesus, lived the latter part of her life in southern Gaul. While this is legend, not confirmed fact, one versions of the story of how she came to be there is that in AD40, the Jews of Palestine were being persecuted and Mary Magdalene was forced to board a boat that was set adrift in the Mediterranean with no oars or sail, no helm or rudders. Miraculously, the vessel landed on the shore of the Camargue at what is now Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and continued on to convert Gaul. From there, Mary Magdalene went first to Marseille and then to La Sainte-Baume where she lived in a cave in the hills for the last thirty-three years of her life. Her remains were discovered in the 13th century and are now displayed in La Saint-Baume in the Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume.