This sanctuary is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, and has since antiquity been called Our Lady of the Sea (Notre Dame de la Mer). It is here in 45/46 that the Christian Message was announced for the first time. During the 2nd century it spread rapidly to Arles and then through the Rhone Valley and up to Lyon.
The bodies of the Saint Women are here: Mary, mother of James the Major and John the Evangelist, and Mary, the mother of James the Minor and Joseph. They followed Christ and were the first to bring the message of the Good News of his Resurrection. After they were chased out of Palestine, they arrived on the coast of the Camargue with other disciples. Tradition has it that they arrived with Mary Magdalena, Martha and Lazarus.This sanctuary is one of the first pilgrimage sites in Provence and is most popular among the gypsy communities, the Tsiganes who venerate their Saint Sara. She is said to have been the servant who accompanied the Marys.
In his testament in 542, Saint Césaire, bishop of Arles, mentioned a church dedicated to Our Lady of the Raft. This first sanctuary was not fortified as the country benefited from a time of peace. It is in the 9th century with the invasions of the Sarrasins that a fortified church was constructed. It incorporated the primitive church as it was believed to hold the bodies of the Saint Women and because pilgrims came to pray. In 1448, King René ordered a dig to prove the existence of these relics which were found and placed in reliquaries in the upper church. The primitive sanctuary was then demolished.