Perched on a hill, the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica dominates, like a lighthouse, the Marseille city and its Old Port. At its summit, the Good Mother opens her arms to the people of Marseillais and passing visitors: sailors, tourists, migrants, pilgrims. That’s more than two million visitors per year! “This sanctuary is a rallying point for everyone, whether they are believers or not,” explains Father Olivier Spinosa, rector of the sanctuary. It is a place of hospitality that welcomes everyone, regardless of religion. »
Christians, of course, for whom Mary, Jewish woman from Galilee, is mother of God. But also Muslims who devote particular worship to her, because she is often mentioned in the Koran as “mother of the prophet Jesus”. Hence the idea of this exhibition, conceived as a journey that crosses religious borders, under the sign of the Virgin, bridge between cultures in the Mediterranean.
An exhibition which follows that on “Shared Holy Places”
It is also in the wake of the exhibition “Shared Holy Places”, which was presented in 2015 at the Mucem, in Marseille. Then auxiliary bishop of this city, Jean-Marc Aveline had the opportunity to visit it and appreciate its message. Having become a cardinal, he therefore asked his curators, Dionigi Albera and Manoël Pénicaud (CNRS), to design, with the team from the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica, a new exhibition entirely dedicated to the Virgin Mary. . “What the Mediterranean represents through its geography,” he specifies, “it is up to the people who live on its shores to implement it through the relationships they weave among themselves, despite the upheavals of history, as a great mosaic of hope. »
Inaugurated during the Mediterranean Meetings (September 17-24, 2023), echoing the “theology of the Mediterranean” promoted by Pope Francis, this exhibition, which is presented to the public until January 6, 2024, has already welcomed numerous visitors . They were able to admire more than 110 works and objects from the collections of the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica, private collections and the Mucem reserves: ex-votos, paintings, statues, icons, Muslim miniatures, pilgrimage memories, without forgetting the films and photographs of the places mentioned.
Bonifacio, Algiers, Lampedusa… The Marian sanctuaries of the Mediterranean in the spotlight
A crown of Marian sanctuaries facing each other on both shores of the Mediterranean: such is the sacred geography presented on a map at the entrance to the exhibition. Among the places mentioned, let us cite, on the north bank: Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde and Notre-Dame-de-la-Major in Marseille, Notre-Dame de Santa Cruz in Nîmes, Notre-Dame-de-Tibhirine in Bonifacio, the San Salvatore monastery in Cori in Italy, Notre-Dame-des-Blachernes in Istanbul. And, on the south bank: Notre-Dame-du-Maroc in Tangier, Notre-Dame-de-Santa Cruz in Oran, Notre-Dame-de-la-Goulette in Algiers, Notre-Dame-de-la-Goulette in Tunis, Notre-Dame-de-la-Goulette in Tunis, -Lady of Porto Salvo in Lampedusa or Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa.
The exhibition is divided into four sections: “Mary of the Two Shores”, “Mary in the Holy Land”, “The House of Mary in Ephesus” and “The Madonna of Lampedusa”. “The objects presented,” comments Manoël Pénicaud, “emanate a message of peace. And we cannot help but be struck by the photo of the icon of Our Lady-who-brings-down-the-walls, visible on the separation wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. » In the same spirit, a photo represents two Muslim women praying in the chapel of the House of Ephesus which, according to tradition, would have been the last home of Mary.
Lampedusa, place of hospitality
In resonance with the migratory drama playing out in the Mediterranean, two objects particularly attract attention. First of all, the “chalice of Salvation”, used by Pope Francis during a mass celebrated in Lampedusa on July 8, 2013. “In 2011,” explains Francesco Tuccio, “a boat with 500 migrants ran aground in Lampedusa. Thanks to the help of residents and law enforcement, almost everyone was saved. From that day on, every morning, I went to see the boat and the idea came to me to take part of the stern to make four chalices, one of which was intended for Pope Francis. While carving the wood, I encountered a nail which complicated my task. When I was able to extract it, the image of the stigmata came to my mind. Once the work was finished, I put the nail back and from there the name of this work was born. »
As Christmas approaches, another object particularly moves us: the nativity scene which represents the Holy Family saving a migrant in the Mediterranean, offered to the parish of Lampedusa by Pope Francis at the end of 2013. “This island is today associated with the tragic crossings of the Mediterranean by migrants,” explains Manoël Pénicaud. But we do not know that, from the 16th to the 18th century, it was a place of truce, supplies and refuge in the event of shipwreck. A cave visited by Christian and Muslim sailors housed an oratory dedicated to the Virgin and a Muslim saint. This coexistence inspired Enlightenment philosophers like Denis Diderot, for whom the island represented a utopian ideal (1). »
The humanity of Mary
“Magnificent exhibition! After ten years without returning to this sanctuary, I am overcome with nostalgia. Child of Muslim immigrants, you reconcile me with an almost lost hope that people can live in harmony whatever their origin, culture or faith. » This message, left by a visitor in the guestbook at the exit of the exhibition, sums up the aim of this initiative well.
“We wanted to show that religious feeling is not synonymous with separation or division,” explain the curators of this exhibition. Whatever our belief or non-belief, we share the same hopes and the same sorrows. And the fragility of the human condition pushes people to come and ask for help when they are going through an ordeal. For Christians and Muslims alike, Mary is always listening. »
This is also the opinion of Father Olivier Spinosa, rector of the basilica, who adds: “Mary’s mission is to be mother of humanity. She is the Good Mother who welcomes, who accompanies, who consoles, who creates unity. It thus offers a very beautiful image of femininity. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why many women of all faiths come to pray here, and more generally in Marian shrines. »
In this world where many walls still separate people, this exhibition contributes to the building of the culture of conviviality and peace. Like its big sister “Shared Holy Places” which will be presented in Rome for the jubilee in 2025, it will perhaps be adapted in other cities, why not at Notre-Dame-d’Afrique in Algiers, a sanctuary parent of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde. It is therefore only the beginning of this museum pilgrimage, which should cross many borders and draw, to use the leitmotif of the Mediterranean Meetings, new mosaics of hope!
(1) Dionigi Albera has just published a work on this little-known past of Lampedusa: Lampedusa. A Mediterranean story, Threshold, 2023.