Notre Dame de la Garde is a beautiful Catholic basilica and Marseille’s best known landmark. Neil and I were able to see it from the window of our apartment in Marseille. We were excited to go and explore it for that reason. I found that our first visit wasn’t quite enough for me to soak in everything that I wanted to know about it. I got totally sucked into the remarkable history of this monument, and we ended up making the trek up the hill three times in total – one just to watch the sunset! Even if religion isn’t your thing (it’s certainly not mine), there is still lots to love about this attraction. The incredible views of the Mediterranean Sea alone make it worth the visit!
Notre-Dame de la Garde (Our Lady of the Guard) is known locally as “the Good Mother.” It was given the title of Basilica Minor from Pope Leo XIII in 1879. A popular Assumption Day pilgrimage takes place here on August 15.
The winds were very strong the first day we went to visit it, especially as the basilica is located on top of an exposed limestone peak – the highest natural point in Marseille. When we were outside I was very thankful I had worn leggings underneath my dress. The breeze at one point felt like it was strong enough to lift me up and carry me away!
The exterior of the basilica is made with white limestone and green sandstone. A 37-foot copper statue of the Virgin Mother and Child, gilded with gold leaf and weighing ten tonnes, adorns the bell tower. The “Good Mother” is seen as the guardian and protector of the people of Marseille, especially mariners.
The present building has several levels. The lower levels contain a museum, a restaurant, and administrative offices. The basilica itself consist of two main levels. The lower level is the Roman-style crypt. It is peaceful and somber.
The upper level is the Neo-Byzantine basilica. It is a riot of colour and story. It consists of ornate marble arches and domes, decorated with beautiful mosaics.
Notre Dame de la Garde feels like an appropriate place of worship for a port city. While touring inside, the winds made it sound like there was a gale force storm battering the walls.
Throughout its history, sailors and other worshippers have expressed their gratitude and devotion to the basilica and to the Virgin Mother through the giving of ex-votos. An ex-voto (“following a vow”) is “a plaque, object or little picture, left in a sanctuary by someone who, finding themselves in danger, has made a vow for protection, help or healing and considers that the vow has been fulfilled thanks to the intercession of the Virgin Mary with God. An ex-voto is an offering of thanks for and public demonstration of the grace received” (this explanation given in a pamphlet obtained at the basilica’s museum).
For example, below is a simple ex-voto recognizing Notre Dame de la Garde for saving a family from the cholera epidemic in 1884-1885.
There are many votives to be found around the basilica such as paintings, plaques, model boats, and war medals.
Football shirts have even been offered up by players and supporters of the local football team! A helmet from the French army, slightly bent from a potential shrapnel blast, hangs on the wall. Neil and I enjoyed the many boats that hang from the decorated ceilings of the basilica. They are offerings from mariners grateful for being spared from shipwrecks, storms, pirates, and other misfortune on the sea.
Models of boats (and even a couple of planes, if you look closely in the third picture).
Below translates as: “In recognition of the Good Mother for having protected the firefighters during the three terrible days of the fires on the hills North of Marseille on July 25, 26 and 27, 1997.”
A collection of war medals from the Franco-Prussian War.
World War I.
The Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde also has a fascinating history. In 1214, the hill known as “La Garde” was the property of the Saint-Victor Abbey. Master Pierre, a priest of Marseille (and possibly a hermit), was granted permission from its abbot to build a chapel on the hill.
Notre Dame de la Garde overlooking Saint-Victor Abbey.
Master Pierre dedicated the church to the Virgin Mother. Its increasing popularity demanded an expansion of the sanctuary through the construction of a second chapel in 1477.
In 1516, Francis I of France visited the chapel with his wife and mother. He observed that Marseille was poorly defended (Fort Saint-Jean and Fort Saint-Nicolas wouldn’t be built until 1660), and noted the strategic position of the hill overlooking the city and coastline. In 1524 Marseille was besieged by Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, during the war for the possession of the Duchy of Burgundy. The city was nearly lost, but Francis’ opponents fled when he arrived with his army. He ordered the construction of two fortresses: one on the island of If, and one atop the hill with the chapel.
A drawing of what the fort looked like.
You can see part of the old fort’s wall at the base of the church.
Rather than close the chapel or restrict its use to that of the fortress garrison, Francis I decided that the public would still be able to worship at the church during times of peace. This is the only known example of a military fortress sharing a space with a public chapel. A drawbridge granted access to the fortress and the chapel, and was raised every night. This tradition of raising the drawbridge every evening continues today with a new drawbridge that was installed in 1879. The Chateau d’If was finished in 1531 and the fortress in 1536.
The current drawbridge raised after the basilica is closed for the evening.
After the French Revolution, the fortress was turned into a prison. Many of the chapel’s treasures, including its collection of ex-votos, were melted down or auctioned off.
In 1795, Joseph Elie Escaramagne, a Marseilles sailor and merchant who escaped the guillotine for the crime of conspiracy against the republic, leased the chapel of Notre-Dame de la Garde. He was able to reopen it for worship in 1807. Perhaps this was done as fulfillment of the ultimate ex-voto? Saving the church and reopening it to the public is definitely a great way to show your gratitude.
Escarmagne also purchased the “Virgin of the Bouquet” statue and donated it to the church. Today, it can be found in the crypt.
In 1853, the construction of a new church (the present building) began. It doubled the size of the previous chapel. The military fort was almost entirely integrated into the foundations of the church. The church was consecrated in 1864.
In 1934, the fort was demilitarized, ending 400 years of military presence and function. Ironically, not even a decade would pass before German soldiers occupied the basilica after Marseille fell to Nazi rule in 1942.
The Battle for the Liberation of Marseille took place between August 21-28, 1944. The church still bears some of its scars from the gunfire and shrapnel set off during the fighting.
A fierce battle for the hill and the chapel happened on August 25. Tanks from the 1st armoured division led the assault on the hill under the command of General J. de Goislard de Monsabert. Members of the French Resistance led soldiers from the 2nd and 7th Algerian Tirailleurs up the hill. A tank, Jeanne d’Arc, had nearly reached the base of the basilica when it was hit by a shell. Three occupants were killed. The tank has been restored and now sits near where it was hit.
It was a tough climb to the top of the hill under German rifle fire. The Germans had set up blockhouses to help defend their position. Thankfully, a French soldier familiar with the neighbourhood knew that inside a nearby building there was a hallway that led to a set of stairs that ran up the hill, an access point unknown to the German soldiers.
A plaque adorns the otherwise unassuming door where the Algerian soldiers entered the building at No. 26 Cherchel Street. (Now called Rue Joules-Moulet).
At 3:30 pm, the basilica was successfully, if only briefly, liberated. The French flag was hoisted atop the bell tower. However, German fire from the guns of still-occupied Fort Saint Nicolas forced their retreat. This defeat was temporary as Marseille was successfully liberated on August 28, 1944.
To recognize the efforts of the Algerian Infantry, the Pennant of the General de Monsabert hangs in the basilica.
As the website for the basilica notes, “it is Muslims who liberated Our Lady, and their symbol, the crescent moon is, very appropriately, one of the most important attributes of the Virgin Mary.”
In addition to this remarkable history, Notre-Dame de la Garde offers spectacular views of Marseille and the Mediterranean from its terraces.
Vieux Port and Fort Saint Jean can be seen below.
The quintessential Mediterranean photo.
The remains of a quarry are on the left.
The rest of the city with its massive football stadium, the Velodrome, in the upper right.