Everything you need to know about the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon

The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière is a religious building located in Lyon, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France. Built at the top of the Fourvière hill, it overlooks the famous city of lights. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998, Notre-Dame de Fourvière welcomes over 2 million pilgrims and tourists every year. Now a symbol of the city of Lyon, it honors the Virgin Mary and owes its distinctive Byzantine, Gothic and Romanesque architecture to architect Pierre Bossan. In this article, we’ll retrace the history of this basilica, while taking a look at the various architectural elements that make up this must-see tourist attraction in Lyon.

The Saint Thomas chapel and the beginning of pilgrimages

In 1168, Olivier de Chavannes, canon of Saint-Jean, had a small chapel built on Fourvière hill in honor of Saint-Thomas. But in the 17th century, a plague epidemic ravaged the city of Lyon, and the aldermen appealed to the Virgin Mary to eradicate the devastating disease that had been spreading since 1628. In 1642, a procession was organized to Notre-Dame to pray for deliverance from the plague. The following year, an annual pilgrimage was approved, to be held each year on September 8, the day of Mary’s nativity, on Fourvière hill. Since 1643, the annual procession has taken place between Lyon’s Cathédrale Saint-Jean and Chapelle Saint-Thomas. In the mid-19th century, the religious building, now dedicated to the Virgin Mary, fell into disrepair, and restoration work began in 1849. A new two-storey bell tower with a square base was built, and an octagonal top storey topped by a cupola overlooked the building. On September 8, 1852, a statue of the Virgin Mary by Joseph-Hugues Fabisch was installed at the top of the bell tower. The gold-covered sculpture is 5.60 metres high and weighs almost 3 tonnes. However, due to bad weather, the installation, initially scheduled for September 8, has been postponed to December 8. Since then, as a sign of piety, the people of Lyon have lit lanterns on their windowsills every year. This major event in Lyon’s history marked the birth of the Festival of Lights. As more and more pilgrims made their way to Fourvière hill, a project to enlarge the sanctuary was envisaged in the second half of the 19th century.

The statue of the Virgin Mary atop the Saint-Thomas chapel
The statue of the Virgin Mary atop the Saint-Thomas chapel

The birth of the sanctuary and future basilica

As a first step, Monseigneur Bonald created the Fourvière commission and acquired land on the hill to make the site a sanctuary. New buildings are to be erected and the St. Thomas chapel is to be freed from its poor surroundings. In 1866, the commission and the church authorities agreed on a project to build a new church. The work was entrusted to Pierre Bossan, an architect from Lyon, who spent two years in Rome consolidating the plans for the future basilica. However, it would be some thirty years between the first sketches of the building and the laying of the foundation stone. Given the poor quality of the subsoil, the basilica project had to be moved back three meters, which lessened the overhanging effect initially planned for the Lyonnais skyline. Underground networks are partly vaulted, and cisterns are installed to drain water underground. The foundation stone for Notre-Dame de Fourvière was laid on November 8, 1872, at a depth of 22 metres! The towers are supported by 20 metres of concrete, while the crypt requires a further 4 to 5 metres. As the local granite in the ground was not of good quality, stones had to be imported to build the edifice. White limestone from the Lyon region is used, its whiteness evoking Mary’s virginity. 825 cubic meters of Bugey travertine were used to build the building’s vaults. The 16 columns supporting the 27-metre-high nave are made of blue marble. A metal frame to be covered with Angers slate replaces the oak frame originally planned. The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière enjoys a special legal status among French religious buildings: since its construction, it has been the property of its donors, rather than ecclesiastical property. That’s why, at the dawn of the 20th century, just before the promulgation of the law separating church and state, Victor Augagneur, then mayor of Lyon, expressed the wish to close the Fourvière basilica. Fortunately, his wish was not granted!

Facade of the Notre-Dame de Fourvière basilica
Facade of the Notre-Dame de Fourvière basilica

The architecture of Notre-Dame de Fourvière

The basilica is embellished by 4 octagonal corner towers, 2 of which are on the façade. 48 metres high, they are slightly flared at the top:

  • The northwest tower represents strength.
  • The southwest tower represents justice.
  • The north tower represents prudence.
  • The south tower represents temperance.

Paul Abadie, designer of the Basilica of the sacred heart of Montmartre, considers the Arab-Norman-inspired towers unsuitable for the sanctuary, criticizing the work of architect Paul Bossan. The basilica’s apse is crowned by a statue of the Archangel Michael, as at Mont Saint-Michel. The western facade is framed by towers representing strength and justice.

Notre-Dame de Fourvière is actually made up of two superimposed churches, each accessible via the forecourt and linked by the Staircase of Wisdom, a monumental double-flight staircase designed by Louis Sainte-Marie Perrin. The lower church, improperly called the crypt, is dedicated to Joseph and represents the hidden face of the Holy Family. Initially conceived as the main entrance to the sanctuary by Pierre Bossan, this section remained unfinished, as the builders were in a hurry to move on to the upper church. A statue of Joseph carrying the infant Jesus can be seen at the top of the altar. At the foot, seven mosaics evoke the seven deadly sins. Today, the lower church houses 11 statues of virgins from sanctuaries around the world.

The upper church is preceded by a porch some ten meters deep, and dominated by three domes lit by six stained-glass windows. There are eight chapels, and the apse is lit by seven tall glass windows. The interior is decorated with mosaics recounting the story of the Virgin Mary in French history and in her relationship with the church. Eleven mosaics known as “heresies” surround the main hotel of the upper church. This part of the basilica also houses a large organ, restored in 1996.

The Saint-Michel statue and its breathtaking view of old Lyon
The Saint-Michel statue and its breathtaking view of old Lyon

The Rosary garden

The Jardin du Rosaire provides access to Fourvière from the old Lyon neighborhoods via Montée Saint Barthélémy or Montée des Chazeaux. Laid out in the 19th century when the basilica was built, it provides a passageway for the processions held every year in honor of the Virgin Mary. Nearly 1,400 metres of paths link esplanades, terraces and belvederes, offering visitors a two-hectare area of heritage and botanical discoveries. On the way up, you can see the house of Pauline Jaricot (who once installed a toll booth to gain access to the site), as well as the chapel of Sainte Philomène and the statue of Saint-Joseph. Shaded by chestnut, lime and maple trees, the Rosaire garden is also planted with evergreens such as boxwood and holly, allowing you to enjoy the greenery whatever the season. The Rosaire garden also features a rose garden and orchard.

Useful information

The basilica is located in Lyon’s 5th arrondissement, in the Fourvière district. To reach the site by public transport, simply take the funicular to the Vieux Lyon stop on metro line D. For the more adventurous, the basilica can also be reached on foot via the famous Fourvière hill steps. Opening times and other practical information can be found at www.fourviere.org/fr.


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