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French Pilgrimage

Anne-Marie Ford    -    29 April 2017

It is 24th May, and I am standing on the beach at Saintes Maries de la Mer in France where Romani, mainly French and Spanish, together with a few tourists, have gathered for the annual festival of Saint Sarah.

The town of Saintes Maries de la Mer is the capital of the Camargue, in the South of France; the Camargue itself is famous for its splendid white horses, its black bulls, tall marsh grass and pink flamingos. But this little gem of a town is known for its Romani celebration in the late spring.

Today the streets are crowded with Romani, many gaily dressed, and some tourists, who are garbed rather less brightly; there is music, laughter, and, parked along the roads and alleyways leading to the beach, are beautifully painted wagons.  The festival is religious, although it probably has its roots in pre-Christian pagan rituals, and celebrates Saint Sarah, often called Black Sarah, as the patron saint of the Romani. Although the Vatican does not recognise her in this manner; this seems to matter very little to the Gitans who crowd the streets in the third week of May.

The parade begins in the ninth-century Romanesque church where the statue of Sarah is surrounded by candles lit by the many Romani who come to pray. The candles are long, thin tapers of flame, creating an atmosphere of smoke and light in the hot, overcrowded temple. Sarah is also offered little notes, written prayers, requests, letters of gratitude, then, after Mass, the statue is mounted on a trestle and carried aloft to the sea, accompanied by male black-hatted outriders carrying lances, as a guard of honour, seated on beautiful, white Camargue horses.  There is a good deal of music, too, violins and guitars, as the chattering and flamboyant procession walks from the church, down the road and across the wet sand, into the cold, blue-grey sea.

Tomorrow is the feast of Saints Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome, whom Sarah was said to have welcomed to the shore and lived with them as their servant.  Tradition says the women, fleeing persecution, were guided to the spot, where they lived out their days, and the little fishing village was re-named in their honour. Legends such as this led to a belief in secret societies, protecting the blood of Christ in his descendants, as Mary Magdalen also figures in some of the stories. It was just these kind of tales that led to such works as the Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003), and may, I suppose, account for some of the visitors here today.

Sarah herself is first mentioned in a text dating from about 1521, “The Legend of the Saint Marys,” written by Vincent Phillippon, and now housed in the library at Arles, in which she is described as collecting monies for the small Christian community that has sprung up in the region. How or why she came to be adopted as the protector and patron saint of the Romani has never been explained, but her existence probably builds on stories of the Black Madonna.  

Whatever the case, these two days of celebration bring communities of Gypsies and Travellers to the town to celebrate, arrange marriages or broker business deals, to meet once more with distant family members, to exchange news, to baptise their children.

The artist Van Gogh, whilst living at nearby Arles with Gaugin, came to what was then a little fishing village in 1888; during the week he stayed at Saintes Maries de la Mer he painted a series of evocative works, many of the sea and little fishing boats. Saintes Maries de la Mer continued to intrigue: Picasso visited, as did Hemingway, and Alistair MacLean’s thriller Caravan to Vacarres (1970) is set around the pilgrimage. The statue of Saint Sarah also makes an appearance in Latch Drom (1993), a Tony Gatlif film about the Romani that traces their journeying musically through time from Northern India.

Yet, in spite of all this attention the little town is not over-run by tourists, although the area itself is very popular. Instead, when the Gypsies and Travellers leave for another year, Saintes Maries de la Mer returns to a peaceful existence, gazing out over the Mediterranean, which Van Gogh painted in a variety of changing shades, from blues and greens to pinks, golds and greys,

Today the water is blue and grey, and very cold, but, as Saint Sarah takes her ritual, I am reminded of the Hindu Goddess Kali, who was also taken into the sea as part of a ceremony in which she was venerated, and was also, like Sarah, black. Does the rite really belong to another time and place, brought almost effortlessly into a religious ceremony a world away from its Indian roots?

If you never have the opportunity to make this pilgrimage yourself, try to see Mai Zetterling’s 1961 documentary, “Lords of Little Egypt.” The Swedish actress and film director produced a remarkable piece of social history in her b/w film about the celebration of Saint Sarah and so created an homage to people and place that is deeply engaging. BBC4 showed this film in September 2016 – look out for it, it’s bound to be repeated!

Copyright © 2017 Anne-Marie Ford