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Notre-Dame de la Garde

History and museums
basilica, landmark, sightseeing

Notre-Dame de la Garde (literally Our Lady of the Guard), is a Catholic basilica in Marseille, France. This Neo-Byzantine church was built by the architect Henri-Jacques Espérandieu on the foundations of an ancient fort. The fort was located at the highest natural elevation in Marseille, a 149 m (490 ft) limestone outcrop on the south side of the Old Port of Marseille. It is an important local landmark and the site of a popular annual pilgrimage every year on Assumption Day, August 15.

The basilica was consecrated on June 5, 1864, replacing a church of the same name that was built in 1214 and restored in the 15th century. Charles II d'Anjou mentioned it as a guardpost in the 15th century, but the present basilica was built on the foundations of a 16th-century fort erected by Francis I of France to resist the 1536 siege of Marseille by the Emperor Charles V. It consists of a lower church or crypt in the Romanesque style, carved from the rock, and an upper church of Neo-Byzantine style decorated with mosaics. A square 41m bell tower (135 ft) topped by a 12.5m belfry(42 ft) supports a monumental 11.2 m (27 ft) statue of the Madonna and Child made of copper gilded with gold leaf.

The green limestone from the Florence area that was used to build the basilica was discovered to be sensitive to atmospheric corrosion. An extensive restoration took place from 2001 to 2008, including work on mosaics damaged by candle smoke and the impact of bullets during the Liberation of France at the end of World War II.

People from Marseille traditionally see Notre-Dame de la Garde as the guardian and the protector of the city. Local inhabitants commonly refer to it as la bonne mère ("the good mother").



A unique site

The Bay of Marseille opens west to the sea. It is bordered by the mountain ranges Star Massif to the north, Sainte-Baume to the east, and the Massif de Marseilleveyre to the south. In the middle of this broad depression a cretaceous limestone peak rises to a height of 162 metres with the basilica at its summit.

Chapel in the 13th century

Due to its height and proximity to the coast, the hill became an important stronghold and observation and lookout point, as well as a landmark for shipping. In 1302, Charles II of Anjou ordered one of his ministers to set beacons along the Mediterranean coast of Provence. One of these beacon sites was the hill of Notre-Dame du Gard.

The first chapel

In 1214 maître Pierre, a priest of Marseille, was inspired to build a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary on the hill known as La Garde, which belonged to the abbey of Saint-Victor. The abbot granted him permission to plant vines, to cultivate a garden there and to build a chapel. The chapel was completed four years later, and appears in a June 18, 1218 papal bull by Pope Honorius III listing the possessions of the abbey. After maître Pierre died in 1256, Notre-Dame de la Garde became a priory. The prior of the sanctuary was also one of four claustral priors of Saint-Victor.

From the time the chapel was founded, surviving wills show bequests in its favour. Also, sailors who escaped a shipwreck had been giving thanks and depositing ex-votos at Notre-Dame of the Sea in the church of Notre-Dame-du-Mont. Towards the end of the 16th century they began going to Notre-Dame de la Garde instead.

The first chapel was replaced at the beginning of the 15th century by a larger building with a richly equipped chapel dedicated to Saint Gabriel.

Fort and place of worship from the 16th to 18th centuries

Visit of Francis I

On January 3, 1516 Louise of Savoy, the mother of Francis I of France, and his wife Queen Claude of France, daughter of Louis XII, went south of France to meet the young king, who was fresh from his victory at Marignan. On 7 January 1516 they visited the sanctuary of Notre-Dame de la Garde. On January 22, 1516, Francis accompanied them to the chapel as well.

The king noted during this visit that Marseille was poorly defended. The need to reinforce its defenses became even more obvious in 1524 after the constable Charles III, Duke of Bourbon and Charles Quint lay siege to the city and nearly took it. François I then built two forts: one on the island of If, which became the famous Chateau d'If, the other at the top of La Garde, which included the chapel. This is the only known example of a military fort sharing space with a sanctuary open to the public.

The Chateau d'If was finished first, in 1531, while Notre-Dame de la Garde was not completed until in 1536, when it was used to help repel the troops of Charles Quint. Stone from the Cap Couronne was used as well as materials from buildings outside the ramparts of the city demolished to keep them from providing shelter to enemy troops. Among these was the monastery of the Mineurs brothers where Louis of Toulouse was buried near the Cours Belsunce and Cours Saint-Louis.

The fort was a triangle with two sides of approximately 75 metres, and a third of 35 metres. This rather modest fort remains visible on a spur west of the basilica which was restored in 1993 to its original state when a 1930 watch tower was removed.

Above the door can be seen a very damaged escutcheon of François I, the arms of France, three fleurs-de-lys with a salamander below. Nearby to the right is a rounded stone corroded by time which once represented the lamb of John the Apostle with its banner.

Wars of religion

In 1585, Hubert de Garde de Vins, chief of the Catholic League of Provence, sought to seize Marseille and combine forces with Louis de La Motte Dariès, the second consul of Marseille and Claude Boniface, captain of the Blanquerie neighborhood. On the night of April 9, 1585, Dariès occupied La Garde, from which his guns could fire on the city. But the attack on Marseille failed, leading to the execution of Dariès and his accomplice, Boniface.

In 1591, Charles Emmanuel, Duke of Savoy, tried to seize the Abbey of Saint Victor, a stronghouse near the port. He charged Pierre Bon, baron de Méolhon, governor of Notre-Dame de la Garde, with seizing the abbey. On 16 November 1591, Méolhon did so but it was quickly retaken by Charles de Casaulx, first consul of Marseille.

In 1594, Charles de Casaulx wanted to take the fort. He sent two priests, Trabuc and Cabot, to celebrate mass in the chapel. Trabuc wore armour under his cassock and after the ceremony killed the captain of the fort. Charles de Casaulx took possession of it and named his son Fabio its governor. After the assassination of Charles de Casaulx on February 17, 1596 by Pierre de Libertat, Fabio was driven out of the fort by his own soldiers.

Last royal visit

While in Marseille on November 9, 1622, Louis XIII rode in spite of the rain to Notre-Dame de la Garde. He was received by the governor of the fort, Antoine de Boyer, lord of Bandol. When the latter died the 29th of June 1642, Georges de Scudéry, mainly known as a novelist, was named governor, but he did not take up his post until December 1644.

He was accompanied there by his sister, Madeleine de Scudéry, a woman of letters who gave in her letters many descriptions of the area as well as of various festivals and ceremonies. "Last Friday... you could see the citadel covered from head to foot with ten or more flags, the bells of our tower swinging, and an admirable procession returning to the castle. The statue of Notre-Dame de la Garde holding in her left arm the naked child and in her right hand, a bouquet of flowers, was carried by eight shoeless penitents veiled like ghosts."

Georges de Scudéry scorned the fort and preferred to live at Place de Lenche, the aristocratic quarter of the time. The stewardship of the fort was entrusted to a mere sergeant, named Nicolas.

In the 1650 Caze affair, the governor of Provence, the Count of Alais, opposed the Parliament of Provence in the Fronde and wanted to put down the revolt in Marseilles. Since La Garde was a desirable strategic position, he bribed Nicolas and on August 1, 1650 installed there one of his men, David Caze. He hoped to support an attack by galleys from Toulon, a city faithful to him. The consuls of Marseille reacted to this threat by forcing David Caze to leave the fort.

In the 18th century

In 1701 the Dukes of Burgundy and of Berry, grandsons of Louis XIV, visited the sanctuary. Sébastien Vauban, who succeeded Louis Nicolas de Clerville, the builder of Fort Saint Nicolas, studied ways to improve Marseilles' defences. On April 11, 1701, he presented an imposing proposal for a vast enclosure connecting Fort Saint Nicolas to Notre-Dame de la Garde and continuing to the plaine Saint-Michel, currently place Jean-Jaurès, and the quay d'Arenc. This project was not followed through.

During the Great Plague of Marseille, which killed 100,000 people in Marseille in 1720, the bishop Henri de Belsunce went three times on foot to the chapel at the Notre-Dame de la Garde on September 28 and December 8, 1720 and August 13, 1721 to bless the inhabitants of the city.

Revolutionary period

Closing of the chapel

On April 30, 1790 the fort was invaded by anti-clerical revolutionaries who crossed the drawbridge on the pretext of attending mass in the chapel, a ruse previously adopted by the ligueurs in 1594. On June 7, 1792, Trinity Sunday, the day's traditionally large procession was disturbed by demonstrations. During the statue's return to the sanctuary, the Virgin was wrapped in a scarf in the revolutionary tricolour and a Phrygian cap, icon of the French Revolution, was placed on the head of the baby Jesus.

On November 23, 1793 the church buildings were closed down and worship ceased. On March 13, 1794, the statue of the Virgin, made in 1661 from silver, was melted down at the mint of Marseille, number 22 of Rue Tapis-Vert at the former convent of Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy.

A prison for princes

In April 1793, the Duke of Orléans Philippe Égalité, his two sons the Duke of Montpensier and the Louis Charles, Count of Beaujolais, his sister Louise, Duchess of Bourbon and the Prince of Conti were imprisoned for a few weeks at Notre-Dame de la Garde before their transfer to Fort Saint-Jean. In spite of the lack of amenities in the old apartments of the governor, the prisoners enjoyed the panorama. Each day the Duchess of Bourbon attended mass then went to the fort's terrace and often remained as much as two hours in contemplation. The princess Louise, who painted well, left behind a pencil drawing of Marseille as seen from the Virgin of Notre-Dame de la Garde.

A providential man: Escaramagne

The last of the objects from the sanctuary were auctioned off on 10 April 1795. The chapel was nationalized and rented to Joseph Escaramagne. A former ship's captain who lived in what is now the current place du Colonel-Edon, Escaramagne had a deep devotion for the Virgin. After worship resumed in some parishes, he wrote in September 1800 to the Minister of War, Lazare Carnot, asking for the reopening of the sanctuary. But prefect Charles-François Delacroix voiced opposition when the minister consulted him. The chapel finally re-opened for worship on the 4th of April 1807.

Escaramagne bought at auction an 18th-century statue of the Virgin and child from a monastery of the Picpus Fathers that had been demolished during the Revolution. He offered the statue to the La Garde church. The scepter that the virgin had held was replaced by a bouquet of flowers, hence the name "Virgin of the bouquet". To make way for a new silver statue created in 1837, this statue was given to the Montrieux monastery, then returned in 1979 to the sanctuary. This statue of the Virgin of the bouquet is currently displayed on the altar in the crypt.

Renaissance of the sanctuary

On the day the chapel of Notre-Dame de la Garde was reopened for worship, a procession started from the cathedral bringing to the sanctuary the statue that Escaramagne had bought. The traditional procession of the Fête-Dieu resumed in 1814. Julie Pellizzone mentions this event in her diary: "On Sunday June 12, 1814, Fête-Dieu, the gunners of the city guard went in the morning with barefoot penitents to get Our Lady of the Guard and to bring her into town, according to the ancient custom. She was greeted by several cannon blasts. Mass was said, then she was brought here, carried by penitents with their hoods covering their faces, a procession such as had not taken place since the Revolution.

Chapel Expansions

During this period the fort itself went almost unused while the number of people visiting the chapel increased significantly. This increase was so great that the 150 square meter chapel was extended in 1833 with the addition of a second nave, which increased its area to approximately 250 square meters. The bishop of Marseilles, Fortuné de Mazenod, consecrated this chapel in 1834.

Distinguished Visitors

After escaping a shipwreck while returning from Naples, the Duchess of Berry climbed to the chapel on the 14th of June, 1816 and left a silver statuette as an ex voto - although the statue was melted down a few years later.

Marie Therese of France, daughter of Louis XVI and Duchess of d'Angoulême, climbed to Notre-Dame de la Garde on the 15th of May, 1823, which was a day of strong mistral winds. Despite the wind, the duchess remained on the terrace, struck by the beauty of the view.

In 1838 the Virgin of the Guard had another distinguished visitor: François-René de Chateaubriand.

Black Madonna and Child

Thanks to various offerings, notably a gift of 3000 francs that the Duchess of Orleans made while travelling through Marseille in May 1823, a new statue of the Virgin was commissioned to replace the one that melted down during the French Revolution. In 1829, Marseilles goldsmith Jean-Baptiste Chanuel, an artistan with a workshop in the Street of the Dominicans, began work on this statue based on a model by the sculptor Jean-Pierre Cortot. This very delicate work of hammered gold was finished five years later, in 1834. On July 2, 1837, Fortuné de Mazenod blessed the statue on the Cours Belsunce, which was then brought to the top of the hill. It replaced the Virgin of the Bouquet, which was given to Montrieux Monastery. The Virgin of the Bouquet was later returned to the crypt in 1979. The two statues, the Virgin of the Bouquet and the silver Virgin, thus pre-date the basilica where they are displayed.

The Great Bell

The rebuilding of the bell tower in 1843 was accompanied by the purchase of not just a new bell but a great bell commissioned from the Lyons foundery of Gédéon Morel thanks to a special collection among the faithful. It was cast on February 11, 1845 and arrived in Marseille on September 19, 1845. It was placed in Jean-Jaurès square and blessed on Sunday October 5, 1845 by Eugène de Mazenod and baptized "Marie Joséphine". The bell's godfather was André-Élisée Reynard then mayor of Marseilles and the godmother of the wife of shipping magnate Wulfran Puget (born Canaple). Their names are engraved on the bell. On October 7, the bell which weighed 8,234 kilograms (18,153 lb), was placed on a harnessed carriage of sixteen horses. It descended by Thiers Street, Leon Gambetta Alley, the Rue Tapis-Vert, the Cours Belsunce, Canebière, the Rue Paradis, and the Cours Pierre-Puget. Ten horses were added there to the convoy, bringing their number to twenty-six. On the 8th of October, 1845, the ascent of the bell up the hill began with the help of capstans and continued until Friday October 10, when the bell arrived at the summit. The bell was set up on Wednesday October 15. It rang out its first notes on December 8, the day of Immaculate Conception.

On this occasion the poet Joseph Autran composed a poem:

"Sing, vast bell! sing, blessed bell
Spread, spread afloat your powerful harmony;
Pour over the sea, the fields, the mounts;
And especially from this hour when your hymn begins
Ring out into the skies a song of immense joy
For the city that we love!"

Like the statues of the Virgin displayed in the interior of the basilica, the bell came before the construction of the current building.

Construction of the Current Basilica

Negotiations with the Army

On June 22, 1850, Father Jean-Antoine Bernard, who took responsibility for the chapel, asked the Ministry of War to authorise an expansion of the existing building. This request was denied on October 22, 1850, by the resigning Minister of War, Alphonse Henri d'Hautpoul, for being too vague. He agreed to the expansion in theory but demanded a more precise proposal. On April 8, 1851, a more precise request was submitted, calling for the construction of a new and larger church, essentially doubling the area of the existing building. This design would mean that there would no longer be room for military buildings inside the fort. Thanks to the support of General Adolphe Niel, the fortifications committee advocated the proposal on January 7, 1852. Authorization to build a new chapel was given by the Minister of War on February 5, 1852.

The Project

On November 1, 1852, Monseigneur Eugene de Mazenod requested offerings from the members of the parish. Studies were requested from various architects. The administration council of the chapel met with Mazenod almost two months later, on December 30. The proposal presented by Leon Vaudoyer, who worked with Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure, was the only one of Romano-Byzantine style; the others were Neo-Gothic. Each project received five votes, but the vicar's tie-breaking vote went to Vaudoyer, whose project was commissioned. The plans were in fact drawn up by Henri-Jacques Espérandieu, his former pupil who was only twenty-three years old.

On June 23, 1853 Espérandieu was named as architect and developed the project. While he was Protestant, it does not seem that his religion was a major cause of the difficulties he encountered with the committee in charge of the work. The committee decided, without consulting him, not to open up labour for competitive bidding, but to award it directly to Pierre Bérenger (on August 9, 1853), contractor and architect of the Saint-Michel church. He himself had proposed one of the Neo-Gothic plans and was a close relative of Monseigneur Mazenod. The commission also imposed their choice of artists, such as sculptor Joseph-Marius Ramus and the painter Karl Müller of Düsseldorf, without concern for whether their works would fit within the structure. Karl Müller's commission was later rejected, which allowed the architect to direct mosaics as the decor.

A Difficult Construction

The first stone was laid by the bishop of Marseille, Monseigneur de Mazenod on September 11, 1853. Work began but financial problems quickly developed because the foundations had to be laid in very hard rock. In 1855, the government authorized a lottery, but this produced less revenue than anticipated. The financial shortfall grew larger when the sanctuary commission decided to enlarge the crypt. Rather than only underlying the chorus, it was to extend under the entire higher vault. In spite of a loan secured by the personal assets of the bishop, building stopped from 1859 to 1861, the year of Mazenod's death. The new bishop, Patrice Cruice, arrived at the end of August in 1861, and resumed work. The generosity of citizens of all religions and all social positions allowed completion of the work, from the Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie, who visited the Virgin of the Guard on September 9, 1860, to the poorest of Marseillais. The sanctuary was dedicated on Saturday June 4, 1864 by the Cardinal of Villecourt, member of the Roman curia, in the presence of forty-three other bishops. In 1866, a pavement in mosaic was laid in the upper church and the square bell tower was finished; the bell was installed in October of the same year.

In 1867, a cylindrical pedestal or belfry was built on the square bell tower to receive the monumental statue of the virgin. The statue was financed by the town of Marseille. Sketches for the statue made by three Parisian artists, Eugène-Louis Lequesne, Aimé Millet and Charles Gumery were examined by a jury of Espérandieu the architect, Antoine-Théodore Bernex, mayor of Marseilles, and Philippe-Auguste Jeanron, director of the School of Fine Arts, Antoine Bontoux, sculptor and professor of sculpture and Luce, president of the Civil Court and administrator of the sanctuary. The committee selected the proposal of Lequesne.

For reasons of cost and weight, copper was chosen as the medium for the statue. A very new method for the time was adopted for the realization of the statue: galvanoplasty, a type of electroplating, or "the art of moulding without the help of fire" was chosen over hammered copper. A scientific report of November 19, 1866 said that electrotype copper allowed an "irreproachable reproduction" and a solidity that left nothing to be desired. Only Eugène Viollet-le-Duc thought that the galvanoplasty technique would not long resist the atmospheric pollution in Marseilles.

Espérandieu had the statue made in four sections because of the difficulty of getting it up the hill and to the top of the bell tower. He inserted into the center of the sculpture an iron arrow, core of a spiral staircase to the Virgin's head, to be used for maintenance and sight-seeing. This metal structure, used to support the statue, made it possible to assemble the whole by connecting it to the body of the tower. The execution of the statue, entrusted to the workshops of Charles Christofle, was finished in August 1869.

The first elements were assembled on May 17, 1870 and the statue was dedicated on September 24, 1870, but without fanfare since defeat by the Prussian army dampened all spirits The statue was gilded, which required 500 grams (18 oz) gold, and regilding in 1897, 1936, 1963 and 1989.

In March 1871 Gaston Crémieux formed the revolutionary Commune of Marseille. Helped by followers of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the rebels seized the Prefecture of the Rhone delta and took the prefect captive. On March 26, 1871 General Henri of Villeboisnet retreated to Aubagne, but undertook to retake the city beginning on April 3. The rebels who took refuge in the prefecture took fire from the batteries installed in Fort Saint Nicolas and in Notre-Dame de la Garde. They capitulated on April 4 and said that the Virgin changed name and should from then on be called "Notre-Dame of bombardment"

Following the death of Espérandieu on September 11, 1874, Henri Antoine Révoil was charged with finishing the interior of the basilica, in particular the mosaics. The construction of the major crypt and installation of the mosaics in the choir was carried out in 1882. Unfortunately a fire on June 5, 1884 destroyed the altar and the mosaic in the choir; moreover the statue of the Virgin was damaged. The statue and the mosaics were restored and the altar was rebuilt according to the drawings of Révoil. On 26 April 1886 cardinal Charles Lavigerie consecrated the new crypt. In 1886, walnut stalls were built in the choir; the last mosaics in the side vaults were finished between 1887 and 1892. In 1897, the two bronze doors of the upper church and the mosaic above them were installed and the statue of the Virgin was regilded for the first time. Final completion of the basilica thus took place more than forty years after the first stone was laid.

The funicular

In 1892 a funicular to was built to reduce the effort of scaling the hill; it became known as the ascenseur or elevator. The base was at the lower end of Rue Dragon. The upper station led directly onto a footpath to the terrace beneath the basilica, leaving only a short climb to the level of the crypt at 162 m. Construction took two years.

The funicular consisted of two cabins each weighing 13 tons when empty, circulating on parallel cogged tracks. The movement was powered by a "hydraulic balance" system: each cabin, in addition to its two floors capable of holding fifty passengers total, was equipped with a 12 cubic meter tank of water. The cabins were linked by a cable; the tank of the descending cabin was filled with water and that of the ascending cabin emptied. This ballasting started the system moving. The vertical distance between the two stations was 84 m.

The water collected at the foot of the apparatus at the end of each trip was brought back to the top with a 25-horsepower pump—true horsepower, because the pump was powered by steam. Travel time was two minutes, but filling the upper tank took more than ten minutes, forcing waits between departures, in spite of often considerable crowds. The last adventure after the ascent was crossing the 100-meter footbridge up the steep slope. Built by Gustave Eiffel, the footbridge was only 5 metres (16 ft) wide and very exposed to the mistral winds.

On August 15, 1892, the number of visitors exceeded 15,000 The advent of the automobile killed the funicular. On September 11, 1967 at 18. 30, the funicular was shut down as unprofitable. It was demolished after having transported 20 million passengers over 75 years.

The Liberation of France

On August 24, 1944 General Joseph de Monsabert ordered General Sudre to take Notre-Dame de la Garde, which was covered in German Army blockhouses. But his orders stipulated "no air raid, no large-scale use of artillery. This legendary rock will have to be attacked by infantrymen supported by armoured tanks". The primary attack was entrusted to Lieutenant Pichavant, who commanded the 1st company of the 7th regiment of Algerian riflemen. On August 25, 1944 at 6am, troops began moving towards the hill, very slowly because sniping from German riflemen impeded their advance.

One French soldier, Pierre Chaix-Bryan, was familiar with the neighborhood, and knew that at No. 26 Cherchel street, (now Rue Jules-Moulet) a hallway ran through the building to a staircase unknown to the Germans. A commemorative plaque marks this spot today. The Algerian riflemen used this staircase and arrived under the command of Roger Audibert at the Cherchel plateau. Other soldiers took the staircases up the Notre-Dame slope from the boulevard of the same name. The attackers on the northern face came under fire from the blockhouses then were also attacked from the rear by the guns of Fort Saint-Nicolas. The support of the tanks was essential.

In the early afternoon the tanks of the 2nd regiment of cuirassiers of the 1 D.B also attacked from Boulevard Gazzino, now Boulevard André-Aune, and from the church slope. The tank Jeanne d' Arc was hit full force and stopped at the place du Colonel Edon, and its three occupants were killed. The tank can still be seen today. A second tank, the Jourdan, hit a mine but was protected by a rocky overhang, and so could continue shooting. This had a decisive effect not known until later: the German non-commissioned specialist in charge of the flame throwers was killed by Jourdan's fire. Because of this a young, inexperienced German soldier prematurely ignited the flame throwers, which allowed the French to spot the site of the guns.

Around 3:30pm a section of the 1st company of the 7th Algerian riflemen under Roger Audibert, joined by Ripoll, took the hill by storm. They were greeted by Monseigneur Borel, who had taken refuge in the crypt. The French flag was hoisted atop the bell tower, although the position was still shelled from the Angelus and from Fort Saint Nicolas, until they too were retaken. In the evening the German officer who had commanded the German troops at Notre-Dame de la Garde returned. He was wounded and died two days later. The liberation of Marseille took place on the morning of August 28, 1944.


The exterior of the building is notable for its layered stonework in contrasting colours: white Calissane limestone alternates with layers of green Golfalina stone in a style reminiscent of Florence. Inside the upper church, the variety of coloured marbles and multicolored pictorial mosaics is of particular note. Access to the building is from a plaza 100 feet (35 m) wide that leads to a drawbridge. From the plaza one may either directly enter the crypt or climb a stairway to the entrance porch of the upper church.

The building can be considered as a succession of spaces: the porch and bell tower, a nave flanked by side chapels, the transept, dome, choir and apse.


The bell tower

At a height of 41 meters (130 ft), the square bell tower above the entrance porch has two identical storeys of five blind arches, with the central arch bearing a window with a small balcony. This is surmounted by a belfry, with each face made up of three large bays divided by red granite columns, behind which are abat-sons. This belfry is topped by a bordered square terrace with an openwork stone baluster bearing the arms of the city on each side and an angel with a trumpet at each corner. These four statues were carved by Eugène-Louis Lequesne.

From the square terrace a cylindrical bell tower rises to a height of 12.5 metres (40 feet). It is made of sixteen red granite columns supporting a monumental statue of the Virgin Mary, 11.2 metres (36 feet) tall. A staircase within the bell tower allows access to the terrace and to the statue. However, access to the stairs is forbidden to the public. One reaches the upper church through bronze doors designed by Henri Révoil. The central door panels bear the monogram of the Virgin placed within a circle of pearls resembling the rosary. The tympanum above the main entrance is decorated with a mosaic of the Assumption of the Virgin, patterned after an painting by Louis Stanislas Faivre-Duffer.

Side walls

The sides of the nave are divided into three equal parts. In the center of each one, a window illuminates a side chapel. The pilasters and the arches are built of stones and keystones in alternating green and white colors. Basement windows at ground level allow a bit of daylight into the underground chapels of the crypt. Since the nave is higher than the side chapels, the paired bay windows light the three spherical vaults of the nave, but these bay windows are not visible from the terrace.

Transept, dome and apse

The transept is oriented east to west and lit by two paired windows with a rosette above. Above the transept is an octagonal dome nine meters in diameter, composed of thirty-two faces with a cross at each edge. Each face of the octagon contains a window framed by two red granite columns topped by a triangular pediment. The semicircular apse is adorned with five blind archways, each framed by two red granite columns. Later construction of the sacristy buildings hides part of the apse.


The contrast is striking between the soberness of the crypt and the sumptuousness of the church above ground. The low-ceilinged crypt is dim and unadorned, while the upper church is illuminated by bay windows and richly decorated with multicolored marble and mosaics.


In the entrance hall under the bell tower are two marble statues representing Bishop Mazenod and Pope Pius IX carved by Joseph Ramus. In this hall two staircases on either side of the entrance lead to the upper church.

Built entirely in Romanesque style, the crypt is composed of a nave with a semi-circular arched ceiling, bordered by six side chapels corresponding exactly to those of the upper church. The primary altar is composed of Golfalina stone. Behind the altar is a statue of the Virgin with a bouquet. In the side chapels are plaques with the names of various donors. The side altars are devoted to Saint Philomena, Saint Andrew, Saint Rose, Saint Henri, Saint Louis and Saint Benedict Labre who was a great influence on Paul Verlaine when he converted.

Upper church

The interior dimensions of the upper church are rather modest. The nave is 32.7 m long and 14 m wide. Each side chapel measures 3.8 m by 5.4 m. The upper church has sumptuous mosaics and columns and marble pilasters alternating red and white. The white Carrara marble was an obvious choice, on the other hand the choice of marble for the red was less clear. Espérandieu wanted a red that would harmonize with the mosaics and not clash too much with the whiteness of the Carrara marble. The monumental mason Jules Cantini discovered just the right marble in the locality known as "the beautiful stones" in the commune of La Celle near Brignoles (Var), a vein of red marble shot with of yellow and white that took a polish beautifully.

Mosaics on the ceilings and the walls covering approximately 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) were created between 1886 and 1892 by the Mora company from Nimes. The tiles, came from Venice, and were manufactured by craftsmen at the top of their art. Each panel comprises close to 10,000 tiles with the m2, which means that the basilica contains approximately 12 million small squares of 1 to 2 centimetres (0.79 in). These mosaics constitute an exceptional whole because of the complexity of the decorations, carried out by reputed architects and painters and due to the quality of the tiles. The floors are covered with approximately 380 sq m of Roman mosaics in a geometric pattern.

The nave

The mosaic-covered nave has an exotic atmosphere tinged with orientalism. It is topped by three cupolas decorated with identical mosaics: on a field of flowers doves form a circle around a central floret. The colours of the flowers differ for each cupola: white for the first, blue for the second and red for the third. In the four corners of each, where the dome of the cupola meets the pillars, are medallions depicting figures from the Old Testament. The following medallions are observed:

  • 1st cupola: Noah's Ark leaving the arch of a rainbow, Jacob's ladder and the burning bush;
  • 2nd cupola: Moses' Tablets of Law, Aaron's Rod, a Menorah and a temple incense-burner;
  • 3rd cupola: a vine heavy with grapes, a lily among thorns, and olive branch with leaves of silver and a palm tree.

Mosaics of the first cupola

The transept

The large cupola in the middle of the transept is decorated d' a mosaic representing four angels on bottom d' however s' raising ground towards the raised sky and supporting, arms, a crown of pinks qu' they offer to the Virgin Mary represented by her monogram placed at the center of the composition. With the repercussions of the cupola, in the corbellings, the four evangelists are represented: Saint Mark symbolized by a lion, Saint Luke by a bull, Saint John the Evangelist by an eagle and Saint Matthew by a man. L' blind arcade of the bedside, above l' apse, contains a mosaic representing the Annunciation of Mary: on the right the archangel Gabriel, sent by God, called to Mary "And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS." (Luke 1:31). On the left, the Virgin Mary gives her consent.

Sculptures and mosaics of the transept

The chorus

The main entraince was designed by Révoil, and built by Jules Cantini from 1882 to 1886, out of white marble, with five gilded bronze pillars topped with lapis lazuli.

A decoration of mosaic is prominent throughout the building.

Two doves, drinking in the font (church), are at the front.

A statue of Mary the Virgin, hammered by the Chaneul, from Marseilles, France, is in the foyer, with the inscription Ave Maria.

The Apse is intended to represent the Fire of Hell.

The aisle, of white marble, is formed with gilded bronze blind arcades resting on posts in lapis lazuli, decorated with mosaic. The vault, in vermeil, frames the structure, and its columns, with two panels of mosaic, represent doves and other birds, a Heron, a Peacock, and a Goldfinch, among others. All these are a nod to the virginity and pureness of Mary.


Side chapel

Each side chapel is devoted to a saint. From the entrance, going towards the chorus:

  • on the left: Charles Borromeo, Lazarus and Saint Joseph;
  • on the right: Saint Roch, Mary Magdelene and Saint Peter of these six vaults are similar. On the tomb of each furnace bridge the escutcheon of the titular saint of the vault is reproduced. Jules Cantini carried out these altars designed by Henri Révoil; it also carried out the statue of Saint Peter and in made gift with the sanctuary. The ceiling of each one of these chapels is decorated with a mosaic comprising a side with the name and the blazon of the person who ensured the financing of it and on the other a symbol corresponding to the saint to whom the vault is devoted. One finds thus the reasons following:
  • Weapons cardinalices for saint Charles Borromée; giver Mr. and Mrs. J. Gondran (1892);
  • Open tomb for Lazarus; giver Mrs. Edmond Luce born Lavre Luce (1891);
  • Lily for Saint Joseph; giver Count Pierre Pastré (1890);
  • Scallop and double sack recalling that Saint Roch was a pilgrim; giver Mr. and Mrs. Aimé Pastré and their sons Joseph & Emmanuel (1887);
  • Vase with perfume for Mary Magdalene; giver Mrs. Augutstin Fabre and wire (1891);
  • Keys of paradise for Saint Peter; giver the Count and the Countess Pastré (1889).

Side Chapels

Long and meticulous restoration: 2001-2008

By 2001 the interior frontages had severely aged. Also, the cathedral's mosaics had been badly restored after the war. After four years of preparatory studies, a major restoration project was launched in 2001 under the direction of the architect Xavier David. The work lasted until 2008, financed by local government agencies and by donations from private individuals and businesses.

External restoration

Although the majority of the stones used proved very resistant over time, it was not the same for the green Golfalina stone. This beautiful stone very quickly degrades when exposed to industrial and domestic pollution, especially coal smoke, and was found to be corroded to a depth of 3 to 5 cm. As the original quarry near Florence had been closed for a long time, a new source was sought. A quarry in a vineyard close to Chianti supplied 150 cubic metres of Golfalina. The defective stone was replaced by stone treated to resist pollution. Moreover, rusting metal reinforcements had split some of the stone. Two sets of reinforcements posed a serious problem: those that girdle the top of the bell tower to reinforce against the swinging of the bell, and those around the upper part of the bell tower that supports the monumental statue. Some of the reinforcements were fitted with cathodic protection, and others replaced with stainless steel.

Interior restoration

Interior work was even more important. Some water-damaged stuccos in higher areas had to be remade. Mosaic panels damaged by bullets or shells had earlier been repaired with poor and rushed technique: missing tiles had been replaced by plaster covered with painting. Moreover, all the mosaics were blackened by candle smoke. Mosaics which threatened to fall apart needed to be consolidated with resin injections. The most damaged part was in the central cupola of the nave, where all the gold mosaics needed replacing.

The restoration of the mosaics was entrusted to Marseille artist Michel Patrizio, whose workmen were trained in traditional mosaic skills at the school of Spilimbergo, in Frioul to the north of Venice. The mosaic tiles were supplied by the Orsoni workshop from Venice which had made the originals.

In the arts


Many writers have described the famous basilica, for example:

  • Valery Larbaud:
    "She who governs the roads of the sea,
    Who shines above the waves and the sun,
    The giantess standing behind the blue hours,
    high gold inhabitant of a long white country,
    Christian Pallas of the Gauls.
  • Paul Arene: "Here the true good mother, the only one, who rules in a gold coat stiff with pearls and rubies, under the dome of Notre-Dame de la Garde, a cupola of hard lapis lazuli encrusted with diamonds for stars, condescended to be angry with me.
  • Chateaubriand: "I hastened to go up to Notre-Dame de la Garde, to admire the sea bordered with the ruins the laughing coasts of all the famous countries of Antiquity.
  • Marie Mauron: "It is she whom one sees from the sea, first and last on her summit of light hemmed of blue, dominating its Greek Provence which knows or does not know any more that it is it, but the remainder. Who would miss, believer or not, climbing up to the Good mother?
  • Michel Mohrt: "And there high on the mountain, the good Virgin, the good mother, looked out this crowd, presided over the traffic in the false indentity cards, at the open-air black market behind the Stock Exchange, with all the attacks, all the denunciations, all the rapes, the Good mother of the Garde who takes care on the sailors who are ashore, - as for those who are at sea, let them sort themselves out! "
  • André Suarès: "Notre Dame of the Guard is a mast: it oscillates on its skittle. It will take its flight, the basilica, with the virgin who serves as its crest. Thus the basilica perched on the hill of the guard, and the gilded copper statue which they hoisted on the basilica. There, once more, this style which wants to be Roman and Byzantine, without ever succeeding in being a style: neither the force of the Roman, nor the science of the Byzantine. "

Painters of the Basilica

Many painters have depicted Marseille's port with Notre-Dame's basilica in the background. Paul Signac, who helped to develop pointillism, produced a painting in 1905 that is now shown in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Albert Marquet produced three works. The first was a drawing executed in ink in 1916 and shown at Musee National d'Art Moderne in Paris. The second is an oil on canvas painted in 1916 entitled "The horse at Marseille". This painting, now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bordeaux, shows a horse on the port quay with the hill of Notre-Dame de la Garde in the background. The third, shown at the Annonciade museum at Saint-Tropez, is called "The Port of Marseille in fog"; the basilica emerges from a misty landscape where the purification of form indicates distance. This painting shows this painter did not always represent the port of Marseilles from the front, moving his easel to the riverbank side, sometimes close to the town hall to represent the hill of Notre-Dame de la Garde.

Charles Camoin painted two canvases in 1904 featuring Notre-Dame de la Garde: "The old port with barrels" which is at the Gelsenkirchen museum, and "The Old Port and Notre-Dame de la Garde" shown at the Fine Art museum of Le Havre. This museum also possesses a painting by Raoul Dufy made in 1908, entitled "The Port of Marseille". In 1920, Marcel Leprin made a pastel drawing "Notre-Dame de la Garde seen from the town hall": this work is in the Petit Palais museum in Geneva. Louis-Mathieu Verdilhan, about 1920 "The canal from Fort St. John"; the silhouette of Notre-Dame de la Garde is at the rear of the painting with a boat in the foreground. This painting is at the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris.

The Good Mother

The Notre-Dame basilica of the Guard is considered by the Marseille population as its guardian and the protectoress of the city, hence its nickname of 'the Good Mother'.

The ex-votos

A Mediterranean-style religiosity is expressed here with numerous votive candles and ex-votos offered to the Virgin to thank her for spiritual or temporal favours and to proclaim and recall the grace received.

One of the oldest documents about this practice is a deed of 11 August 1425 in which a certain Jean Aymar paid five guilders for the purchase for wax images offered in gratitude to the Virgin. During his travels in the South of France at the beginning of the 19th century, Aubin-Louis Millin de Grandmaison was struck by the number of ex-voto at Notre-Dame de la Garde: "The path that leads to the oratory is stiff and difficult. The chapel is small and narrow, but decorated everywhere with tributes from pious mariners: on the ceiling small vessels are suspended with their rigs and have their name registered on the stern; they represent those that the mother of Christ has saved from cruel shipwreck or from the fury of pirates and corsairs". The ceiling of the upper church still features many scale models of recently restored boats and planes.

The walls of the side vaults of the two sanctuaries, the crypt and upper church, are covered with a first level of marble slabs. The upper walls of these side vaults are occupied by painted ex-votos hung in several rows above; the most recent are on the walls of the terraces of the basilica. Most of these ex-votos date only from the second half of the 19th century; earlier ones disappeared during the Revolution. Most depict shipwrecks and storms, but there are also very different scenes: fire, car and railway accidents, bedridden patients, and political and social events. The events of May 68 were the inspiration for one drawing; an Olympique de Marseille flag recalls that the players of the club mounted a pilgrimage to the basilica after a victory.

The symbol of Marseille

Visible from the motorway s of Marseilles and from the train station, the gare Saint-Charles, Notre Dame de la Garde is the city's most well-known symbol. It is the most-visited site in Marseille, and receives hundreds of visitors every day, a number of pilgrims remarkable for a site that with no association with a saint, vision or miracle, nor for that matter with a famous person. For Cardinal Etchegaray, former bishop of Marseille, the Virgin de la Garde "does not merely form part of the landscape like the Chateau d'If or the Old Port, it is the living heart of Marseille, its central artery more than the Canebière. It is not the exclusive property of Catholics, it belongs to the human family teems in Marseille." Notre-Dame de la Garde more remains the high point of the diocese of Marseille, even more so than the cathedral. It was here that Bishop Jean Delay, on 30 August 1944, hoped that deep reforms would bring to the poorest more humane and more just living and working conditions. It was also here that Etchegaray compared, in May 1978, the ravages of unemployment to the those of the plague of Marseille of 1720. Notre-Dame de la Garde is well a window of the diocese and the best platform for her bishops.

A museum opened onsite on June 18, 2013 retracing the building's eight hundred years of history. It was officially inaugurated July 11, 2013 with civil and military authorities participating. As with prior renovations, a fundraising appeal received generous support from the public, in addition to gifts from public agencies.

Popular tourist site

While it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of people visiting Notre-Dame de la Garde, it is generally estimated that it receives around a million and half visitors each year, many of course simply there to admire the view. The motivations of pilgrims vary, although many leave messages and inscriptions, for example: "I came here for the peace and the comfort one finds at the feet of the Blessed Virgin, also for the feast for the eyes offered by the basilica, for the panorama, the pure air, the space, and the feeling of liberation."

With an increasing number of cruise ships either making stopovers or leaving from Marseille, excursions to Notre-Dame are a common part of one-city visits to the Phocean City. The basilica is served by the #60 bus from the Old Port (Cours Jean-Ballard), or it can be reached by car from the Old Port by taking cours Jean-Ballard, rue Breteuil, boulevard Vauban and rue Fort-du-Sanctuaire. The basilica can be reached on foot from either the north—using boulevard André-Aune and rue Cherchell—or from the south by means of a path that winds up the hill from the rue du Bois sacré.

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