March 2019 Print

Notre-Dame de la Garde

by Dr. Marie-France Hilgar

Neither apparition nor miracle explain the building. Just someone who in 1214 felt inspired to erect a small chapel to honor the Virgin Mary on top of a hill facing the city of Marseille. This hill was called La Garde, hence the denomination of Notre-Dame de la Garde. After 1524, this chapel was enclosed in the fortress built by King Francis I. It should have been closed to the public, being a military place, but the king decided that in peace time the faithful could have access to the chapel by crossing a drawbridge, which the soldiers left lowered in the daytime. There is no other known example of a sanctuary made inside an active fortress being left open to the public for such a long time: 1525-1941. Notre-Dame de la Garde holds a very important place in the Marseille inhabitants’ hearts. The basilica, with its bell tower, belfry and statue is also a major local landmark. One can find it on most posters for all kinds of events taking place in Marseille.

The Bell Tower

The square bell tower houses a huge bell, 8,234 kilograms, erected in 1845. The bell tower is surmounted by a belfry of 12.5 meters, which itself supports a monumental statue of the Virgin, 9,796 kilograms, that dominates the shrine and the city. It is made of copper, gilded with gold leaf. The statue is re-gilded every 25 years. By day, it reflects the beautiful Provence light and by night it is lit up by powerful floodlights. On the esplanade, one admires the statue representing St. Veronica wiping Christ’s face. A slab on its pedestal recalls the thousands of missionaries who, in the past centuries, left for distant countries in Asia or Africa to spread the Good News, after having implored Our Lady’s assistance from this height. On a side wall in the entrance hall built in 1950 above a huge door one can see the escutcheon of King Francis I and in a circle towards the right, the arms of France with a salamander below, which has been damaged by erosion. This wall’s building enclosed stones taken from the 16th-century fortification, especially those surrounding the door. The drawbridge is visible from there on the right. The modern lobby was built in 1950 and recently totally renovated and replaced with a monumental door surmounted by a mosaic. This building houses, on the ground floor, a huge hall and another room for children’s groups. On the second level, there is the museum of Notre-Dame de la Garde, opened since 2013, and on the next level, the restaurant kept by the Missionary Workers of the “Living Water.” The restaurant is closed on Mondays. On the fourth level, not far away from the upper basilica, is a religious souvenir shop. The elevator A is reserved for the basilica and the shop. The elevator B goes to the museum, the restaurant, the crypt and the ex-voto area.

In front of the basilica’s monumental doors one can admire the statue representing the prophet Isaiah, who predicted the Virgin Mary and the statue of St. John the Apostle to whom the crucified Jesus entrusted Mary as his mother on Good Friday. The tympanum above the main entrance is decorated with a mosaic showing the Virgin Mary’s Assumption. One enters through heavy bronze doors. Designed between 1853 and 1870, the actual sanctuary replaces the original chapel built in 1214. It is built in the Romanesque-Byzantine style. The arcades are Romanesque. The Byzantine influence is visible in the use of a variety of colored marbles (in the interior walls, the white limestone alternates with layers of green), as well in the four domes and the polychrome pictorial mosaics inspired by very beautiful mosaics from the 5th and 6th centuries found in Rome and Ravenna. These mosaics laid between 1886 and 1892 were restored in 2006-2008. Numerous ex-voto meet the visitor’s eyes. They are sailors’ votive offerings, such as model ships hung by ropes in sign of thanksgiving, paintings and marble slabs covering the side walls of the basilica. In the first side vault at the right, dedicated to St. Roch, one can find several military ex-voto. In several side vaults there are shrines with saints’ relics. One side vault is dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen, object of notable devotion in Provence. This chapel is decorated with votive offerings by sailors saved from a great storm. On a marble slab are engraved the names of the 42 cardinals, archbishops and bishops who assisted at the consecration of the sanctuary on June 4, 1864. The next chapel dedicated to St. Peter also houses sailors’ offerings. The altar-table, consecrated in 1986, encloses the relics of several young Africans from Uganda, martyred in 1886. Poignantly, they were baptized by a missionary priest who, before embarking for Africa, had visited Notre-Dame de la Garde on Easter Sunday 1878.

The High Altar and the Blessed Virgin Mary

The high altar in the back of the choir was consecrated in April 1886 by the Cardinal of Algiers. The silver statue of the Virgin Mary commissioned in 1837 was solemnly crowned in June 1931 at a great festival in Marseille that attracted several hundreds of thousands of people. A magnificent mosaic dominates the high altar in the apse. In the central medallion, a ship navigates on a stormy sea: it is the symbol of the Church which also navigates amidst the world’s difficulties. On the sail, one can see the Virgin Mary’s monogram and, in the sky above, at the left, an M surrounded by rays, since the Virgin is also called the “Star of the Sea.” This reminds us that the Virgin Mary helps the Church in its journey towards Christ, whose presence is symbolized by a Cross above the lighthouse. The mosaic that adorns the medallion, representing foliage and birds, is one of the most beautiful created in 19th-century France. Under this mosaic, nine medallions illustrate as many invocations from the Loreto litany to the Blessed Virgin Mary. From left to right: Ark of the Covenant, Mirror of Justice, Seat of Wisdom, Tower of David, Mystical Rose, Tower of Ivory, House of Gold, Spiritual Vessel, Gate of Heaven. Above the apse vault, a mosaic represents the Annunciation. Inside the great cupola, at the angles, the four evangelists are featured with their symbols, namely Matthew (a man), Mark (a lion), Luke (a bull), and John (an eagle).

Entirely gilded, the three cupolas in the nave vault magnificently reflect the light. In Latin or Greek, engraved on white bandeaux, twelve texts by Christian authors present Old Testament prophecies concerning the Virgin Mary. In the cupola by the choir, the medallions show Noah’s Ark opening at the end of the flood with the rainbow, Jacob’s Ladder and the Burning Bush. The central medallions represent Aaron’s flowered rod, the Menorah and the Incensory in the Jerusalem Temple. Next to the entrance, the medallions show the vine, the lilies surrounded by thorns, the olive tree and the palm. Each medallion illustrates a text, the whole vault being a short summary of the Old Testament. Situated in front of the Annunciation medallion which is the first episode, this ceiling recalls how the Old Testament leads to the New One. In the left chapel next to the choir, dedicated to St. Joseph, several slabs recall the visits of some saints, such as Thérèse de Lisieux who visited the basilica on November 29, 1887. In St. Lazarus’ vault, the man Jesus raised from the dead, to whom much devotion is shown in Provence, the first bishop of Marseille, several ex-voto depict people on their sick-beds. The small statue of the Virgin Mary in St. Charles’ vault is an alabaster copy of the wooden statue that was there in the 13th century, destroyed in the time of the French Revolution.

Inside the Crypt

Entering the crypt, the visitor is met by two huge monuments: at the right, the statue of Pope Pius IX, at the left, the statue of the Bishop of Marseille who laid the basilica’s first stone. He founded the Oblates of St. Mary the Immaculate, who served the sanctuary between 1831 and 1903. He was proclaimed a saint in 1995. The crypt entirely dug out of the rock is soberly decorated. At the entrance one sees on the right a large 16th-century crucifix. One side vault is dedicated to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, another to the Holy Family represented in a ceramic work. Behind the altar, a beautiful statue called the “Virgin with the Bouquet” was presented in 1807 by a former sailor. The beautiful folds of Mary’s cloak are to be admired. Another side vault contains the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament, which means, we are to guess, it is not in the church itself. In the next side vault, a priest is ready to assist the pilgrims. One can also admire a beautiful “Deposition from the Cross” and a statue of St. Anthony of Padua. Prayer intentions can be placed in a trunk: they will be given to the Virgin Mary after the Sunday Mass.

Leaving the crypt, after several steps, one can reach the drawbridge. It is still in use and raised every night and lowered every morning. Descending the esplanade by the staircase at his left, the visitor reaches the main bastion belonging to the fort built by King Francis I in the 16th century. From the angles, one can admire the pink stones from a nearby quarry. We must not forget that the sanctuary was built inside a fortification that was then in use. In 1886, a garrison consisting of three barracks was still there. Since 1934, the fortress has no longer been in use. Since 1941, it has belonged to the archdiocese, having been donated by the French State, together with various buildings and the land on the top of the hill. Another building was erected then in order to house the Catholic Sisters who worked for the shrine.

Of course, visitors will not leave the hill without taking a tour of the terraces surrounding the basilica. They will discover from there the most beautiful urban panorama in France: the whole of the city of Marseille, surrounded by mountains, the Ancient Harbor, the Mediterranean, the islands (in the island of “If” which supposedly jailed the Count of Monte-Cristo), and surrounding the city, miles and miles of beautiful beaches. The city is now guarded by the Blessed Virgin Mary. From the top of the hill, “la Bonne Mère,” the Good Mother, watches faithfully over the city and farther away, toward the sea…


Notre-Dame de la Garde (literally: Our Lady of the Guard) is a basilica in Marseille, France, and the city’s best-known symbol. It was built on the foundations of an ancient military fort at the highest natural point in Marseille, a 489-foot limestone outcropping on the south side of the Old Port of Marseille.
Construction of the basilica began in 1852 and lasted for 21 years. It was originally an enlargement of a medieval chapel, but was transformed into a new structure at the request of Fr. Bernard, the chaplain. The plans were made and developed by the architect Henri-Jacques Espérandieu. It was consecrated while still unfinished on June 5, 1864.