Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, the basilica that watches over Marseille

Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, also called “the good mother”, is a basilica located in the south of France, in Marseille. Built on the top of a hill and on the site of an ancient chapel, Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde has become one of the most emblematic symbols of the city. The basilica offers a breathtaking view of Marseille and the Mediterranean, making it a very popular tourist destination. In this article, we will look at the history of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde and the architecture of this building that has become a symbol of hope and protection for the sailors and fishermen of Marseilles.

The history of the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica in Marseille

In 1214, Master Pierre, a priest from Marseille, had the idea of building a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary on the heights of the Garde hill. The abbey of Saint-Victor, owner of the hill, authorized Master Pierre to plant vines, cultivate a garden and build a chapel. The work on the chapel was completed in 1218 and little by little, the building became a place of grace for all the sailors from Marseille who had escaped a shipwreck. At the beginning of the 15th century, this first chapel was replaced by a new and more important building. In 1516, François I, King of France, went to the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde chapel and noticed that the city of Marseille was very poorly defended. In 1524, and following the attempted invasion supervised by Charles V, François I decided to build two forts: the first on the island of If, the second at the top of the hill of La Garde, a fort that would include the chapel. The construction of the fort was completed in 1536. In 1591, Charles Emmanuel, Duke of Savoy, wished to seize the Abbey of Saint Victor, a fortified building located next to the old port of Marseille, but he was defeated by Charles de Casaulx, the city’s first consul. In 1594, Charles de Casaulx seized the fort of La Garde and in 1595, he had a wall built at the bottom of the monument. During the French Revolution, the Fort de la Garde was invaded by patriots and in 1794, after the interruption of worship, an inventory was organized. The silver statue of the virgin dating from 1661 was sent to the mint to be melted down! In 1795, the chapel became national property. In 1800, Escaramagne, a former naval captain, requested that the sanctuary of the Guard be reopened, but this was met with a setback, as the fort was considered to be a place of strategic use in times of war. It was not until 1807 that the chapel was opened to the public again. In 1837, a new silver statue of the Virgin Mary was placed in the chapel. During this period, the fort was not renovated, but the chapel was enlarged in 1833 with the addition of a second nave, bringing its total surface area to 250 m². In 1843, a new bell tower was built to accommodate a drone, a large bell weighing over 8 tons. In 1850, Father Jean-Antoine Bernard asked the Ministry of War to enlarge the existing chapel, but the Minister wanted a more ambitious project. In 1851, a new proposal for a larger church using the military buildings was approved. The authorization to build a new chapel was validated on February 5, 1852 by the Minister of War.

The Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde is built on top of a hill 157 meters high
The Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde is built on top of a hill 157 meters high

The construction of the basilica

Several projects of neo-Gothic style were presented but finally, only the project of Léon Vaudoyer, with its Romano-Byzantine style, was retained. On June 23, 1853, the supervision work was entrusted to the architect Henri-Jacques Espérandieu, although he was a Protestant. The laying of the foundation stone took place on September 11, 1853, in the presence of the bishop of Marseille, Eugene de Mazenod. The hardness of the rock as well as financial difficulties make the works difficult and in 1855, a lottery authorized by the government is organized. Unfortunately, the gains remain much lower than expected. At the same time, the project of enlarging the crypt was validated by the Shrine Commission. The construction was interrupted between 1859 and 1861 due to a lack of funding. Following the death of Bishop Eugene de Mazenod, a new bishop, Bishop Patrice Cruice, succeeded him and re-launched the construction of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde. The generosity of the citizens allowed the resumption and completion of the work between 1861 and 1864. On June 4, 1864, Cardinal Villecourt consecrated the shrine in the presence of 43 other bishops. In 1866, a mosaic pavement is laid in the upper part of the basilica and the square bell tower is finalized, allowing the installation, a few months later, of the 8.2 ton drone. In 1867, a cylindrical pedestal 12.5 meters high, intended to receive the monumental statue of the Virgin, was added to the bell tower of the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica. The project of a statue of the Virgin covered with copper designed by Eugène-Louis Lequesne, a sculptor from Paris, was retained for reasons of cost and weight. Inside the statue, a metal structure was added to support the statue. It consists of an iron spire and a spiral staircase, allowing the maintenance and contemplation of the site. This structure also allows to consolidate the whole to the main structure of the pedestal. In 1882, the mosaics of the heart are laid and an altar is built, near the silver statue. The two bronze doors of the upper church were installed in 1897. Finally, the construction and decoration of the Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde took more than 40 years.

The interior of the Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde is richly decorated with marble and mosaics
The interior of the Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde is richly decorated with marble and mosaics

The architecture of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde

One of the characteristics of the construction of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Guard is the use of materials of contrasting colors, thanks to the use of Calissan limestone and sandstone of Gonfolina, a stone native to Florence, Italy. The interior of the basilica is composed of marble of different colors, as well as polychrome mosaics. Access to the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica is via a 35-meter long staircase leading to a drawbridge. The architecture of the basilica is articulated around a succession of volumes composed of the porch, the bell tower, the nave, the dome and the side chapels.

  • The bell tower: the bell tower of the basilica Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde is 41 meters high. Located above the entrance porch, it has 2 identical floors formed by 5 arcatures. The bell tower has a belfry and a square terrace bordered by a stone balustrade from which rises a cylindrical bell tower of 12.5 meters serving as a base for the statue of the Virgin.
  • The transept: this transverse nave which cuts at right angles to the main nave gives the basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde the symbolic shape of the Latin cross. A dome of 9 meters in diameter, composed of 32 slats whose intersection forms a cross, rises above.
  • The interior: the interior architecture of the basilica displays a striking contrast between the sobriety of the crypt (little lit and without decoration) and the sumptuousness of the upper church (richly decorated with marble and mosaics). The crypt of Romanesque style consists of a vaulted nave and 6 side chapels. The side altars of the chapels are dedicated to saints, such as Saint Andrew or Saint Louis. The upper church displays sumptuous mosaics, as well as marble columns and pilasters alternating red and white colors. The surface of the mosaics of the ceilings and walls of the Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde covers 1,200m² and each panel contains nearly 10,000 small tiles per square meter, or 12 million units! The floors are covered with approximately 380 m² of Roman mosaics with geometric design.
Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde has become a major tourist attraction in the Bouches-du-Rhône department
Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde has become a major tourist attraction in the Bouches-du-Rhône department

Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, symbol of Marseille and a major tourist attraction

Over time, Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde has become the emblematic symbol of the city of Marseille. Nicknamed “the good mother”, she watches over the sailors, the fishermen but also over all the people of Marseille. High place of tourism in Provence, the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica offers, from the top of its hill, a magnificent panorama on the city of Marseille and on the Mediterranean Sea. Accessible on foot or by tourist train, it is the most visited monument in Marseille and welcomes hundreds of people of all nationalities and religions every day: people come from all over the Bouches-du-Rhône department and the whole of Provence to light a candle or to recharge their batteries by getting closer to the sky. Many also consider Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde to be the central artery of Marseille, even more so than the famous one-kilometer-long avenue of the city center, the Canebière. Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde also remains the high place of the diocese, even more than the major cathedral of Sainte-Marie. A museum tracing the 800-year history of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde opened in 2013.

To visit the basilica, we invite you to visit the website to organize your stay in Marseille. Located near the Saint-Charles train station, the basilica is also visible from many parts of the city, as well as from the highways or the Friuli Islands.


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