Historic Saintes Maries de la Mer is the sacred festive ground for the annual veneration of Saint Sara, saint of the nomadic peoples. This little seaside town in the Camargue region of Provence, France welcomes pilgrims from the four corners of Europe and beyond to venerate the Black Sara during the last week of May each year as well as the Sunday closest to October 22nd.
Romanies, Manouches, Travellers, Tziganes and Gitans fill the streets with music and colour, culminating in the procession to the sea on foot and horseback to celebrate the arrival by sea of three very important saints who are deeply embedded in the life of Saint Sara - they are Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary of Clopas.
The bearers go into the sea to symbolize the arrival of the Marys. Some stories tell of Sara seeing the Marys arrive by boat. The sea was rough, and the boat threatened to founder. Mary Salome threw her cloak on the waves and, using it as a raft, Sarah floated towards the Saints and helped them reach land by praying. Other stories tell of Sara being a collector of alms who worked for the Three Marys.
After blessings and to the accompaniment of music and the set of bells, the Procession returns to the church. Later that day, there is a ceremony of bringing the reliquaries back up to the 'High Chapel'.
Violins, guitars, dance and singsong light up the evenings at Saintes Maries de la Mer. A multitude of small candles are lit during the festival and children held up in front of the statues as prayers are recited.
The music, colour, artistry and reverence contained within the celebrations reflect the spirit of the nomadic peoples, eternal pilgrims on the world's roads (many are fervent travellers of El Camino de Santiago). Indeed, within the world of art and literature, the Gypsy has for centuries represented the artist's nomadic soul, their connection with the spirit world and their resistance to imposed boundaries and materialism.
This free spiritedness undoubtedly attracted the attention of writers and artists such as Hemingway and Picasso who were visitors to Saintes Maries de la Mer. The painter Augustus John fell in love with Provence, which he claimed "had been for years the goal of my dreams" as he did with the Gypsy and Romany culture. John relinquished much of his worldly pleasures to pursue a nomadic lifestyle and learn the Romany language.
Taking the sturdy Camargue ponies through the wetlands of Provence and along the streets of Saintes Maries de la Mer, hatless (unrecommended, though understandably in keeping with an ancient tradition), there was the feeling of physical and spiritual freedom - the boundariless domain of the nomad and the artist.
|Encampment at Dartmouth by Augustus John|