The twelfth century church of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer is situated on a low lying rocky outcrop amid the sandy plain of the Camargue region of the Rhône delta. Today, because of the incursion of the sea it stands right by the littoral but during the medieval period it was a further distance inland.
An oratory at the site, built over a sweet water source, is first mentioned in the testament of Caesarius of Arles in the fifth century. Vestiges exist of earlier cults at the location. According to the Greek historian Strabo, a line of protective towers was built along this section of shore by the Phocaean settlers of Marseille and was served by a temple to the Goddess Artemis whose cult they had brought to Provence from Ephesus. The site of the temple appears to have been located at the same point as the present church.
In 1078 the church known as Sainte-Marie-de-Ratis and dependent on the monastery of Saint Caesarius was donated to the abbey of Montmajour. In 1114 it was rededicated as Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer.
The Benedictine monks of Montmajour, itself an important pilgrimage centre were installed at Notre-Dame. It was during this period that an oral tradition appears to have taken root concerning the disembarcation there in the first century of important figures from the Gospel fleeing persecution from the Roman authorities in Palestine. This legend was only set down in writing in 1212 by Gervais of Tilbury, the administrator of the Kingdom of Arles, although there were earlier accounts which placed the arrival of the group at Marseille.
The church of Notre-Dame had been built and consecrated, “By disciples chased from Judaea and carried over the sea on a boat without oars, Maximin of Aix, Lazarus of Marseille brother of Martha and Mary of the Gospel, the consecration taking place in the presence of Martha, Mary-Magdalene and many others”.
Gervais described “in a tradition full of authority” that the altar contained the heads of six saintly bodies laid out in the form of a square “In the middle of which it is affirmed are buried the two Marys who on the first Sabbath came with perfume to visit the Tomb”.
These two saintly relics were therefore the Myrrophores, the women who brought perfume to anoint the body of the Crucified Christ. Mary Jacoby, mother of James brother of Jesus and Mary Salomé, mother of the Sons of Zebedee, that is John the Evangelist and the Apostle of Compostela, Saint James. The third Myrrophore was Mary-Magdalene, whose relics were then believed to be at Vézelay in Burgundy.
According to the Gospel of Mark these three were the discoverers of the Empty Tomb and the first to learn that Christ had risen.
The legend of the existence of the body of the mother of the Apostle of Compostela at this point was given added further weight by the tradition of his preaching in Catalonia, at Barcelona and then later at Zaragossa, both stories combining so that Saint James would have travelled to Provence at the same time as his mother and Mary-Magdalene, Martha, Lazarus and the rest of the disciples.
The church became known as Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and because of the presence of the relics of Mary Salomé attracted pilgrims who took a branch route of the Toulouse Road at Arles to visit the church by the sea.