Notre Dame de la Garde “Good Mother” of Marseille

Notre Dame de la Garde “Good Mother” of Marseille, France


This opulent 19th-century Romano-Byzantine basilica occupies Marseille’s highest point, La Garde (162m). Built between 1853 and 1864, it is ornamented with coloured marble, murals depicting the safe passage of sailing vessels and superb mosaics. The hilltop gives 360-degree panoramas of the city. The church’s bell tower is crowned by a 9.7m-tall gilded statue of the Virgin Mary on a 12m-high pedestal.

Built on the city’s highest point, the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde can constantly be glimpsed along streets and through archways from the moment you emerge out of Saint Charles Station.

Illuminated by night, the great church dominates the bay like a beacon. It has a magnificent setting, panoramic views, a stirring history, an exotic, Byzantine interior and a firm place in the affections of the local community – and not just Catholics. It all makes Notre Dame de la Garde an unmissable destination for anyone who wants to understand something of the Marseille spirit.

The site served as a look-out point from Roman times. A church was originally built there in 1214, and sailors would climb the hill to pray for a safe voyage in prospect or to give thanks for their unharmed return.

King François I ordered a fort to be erected there to protect Marseille from King Charles V of Spain in 1524 – the year work began on the Château d’If for the very same reason. The current basilica was built in 1853 and consecrated in 1864 and, with its drawbridge and residual ramparts, doesn’t disguise its history as a fortress.

But the hill of the Garde has now acquired a wider meaning: that of a sacred symbol and symbol of a city, with the construction of the basilica in 1853. Today the outline of the building is inseparable from the image of Marseille. Yet many churches have preceded its construction. The first in 1214, when a hermit, Master Pierre, received permission to build on this land belonging to the Abbey of Saint Victor, from the sixteenth century the church was gradually transformed into a center of devotion of the sailors. Dating from quest ‘the first time ex-voto that the sailors are in place here.

So the hill of the Garde preserves since a triple vocation: lookout, a military fortification, and place of worship and pilgrimage. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the sanctuary became too small for the many pilgrims who visit him and Bishop Mazenod decided to build a large cathedral. The first stone was laid on 11 September 1853, the work entrusted to the architect Espérandieu and consecration takes place June 5, 1864.

Of Romanesque – Byzantine domes, polychrome stones, gold, mosaics, basilica perfectly responds to the large construction program undertaken in Marseille under Napoleon III. The building consists of two parts: a lower church, a crypt, with arched vault, which contains among other things a polychrome crucifix dating back to the church of the sixteenth century, a “mater dolorosa” marble of Carpeaux, a high church, the sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin (Feast and pilgrimage August 15) which abounds in gold background mosaics and marbles polychromatic which give it the appearance of a reliquary. Of note: the bronze doors and the main altar designed by Revoil, co – architect of the basilica, a silver Chanuel Virgin, an Annunciation in low relief polychrome majolica,Florentine work of the sixteenth century.

The presence of numerous votive offerings displayed on the walls, suspended between the pillars of the nave, is a veritable collection of Naive Art, a kind of moving chronicle of society Marseille, eloquent testimony to the faith of the people: ex voto dedicated to her all that Marseille from all denominations designate as the “good mother.” The tower supports a monumental statue of the Virgin, it was entrusted to the sculptor Lequesne, executed in gilded bronze gold leaf by Christofle atelier and settled in September 1870.

From the square in front of the shrine, you can see the most spectacular views of Marseille and its landscape.
Built by architect Henry-Jacques Espérandieu between 1853 and 1870 in Romanesque-Byzantine style on the foundations of an ancient fort located at the highest natural point in Marseille, a 149m (490 feet) limestone outcrop on the south side of the Old Port. Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica, is a major local landmark and the site of a popular annual pilgrimage every year on Assumption Day, August 15th. A place of worship and a symbol for all of Marseille.

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


The north face bears the marks of battle for the liberation of Marseilles in August 1944. The Basilica has numerous votive offerings and is covered with polychrome marbles, mosaics and frescoes of the school of Dusseldorf. In the crypt a suggestive mater dolorosa, sculpted by Carpeaux. One of the attractions of Notre- Dame-de-la-Garde is the beautiful view of the city that can be enjoyed from its churchyard. It can be reached from the Vieux Port by bus, or on foot with a half-hour walk.

NotreDamePeople from Marseilles traditionally see Notre-Dame de la Garde as the guardian and the protector of the city. Local inhabitants commonly referto it as la bonne mère (“the good mother”).

The people of Marseille attributes thousands of miracles and healing to Notre Dame de la Garde, (“the good mother”), they show their gratitude by placing commemorative plaques on the walls of the church.

From the top you can enjoy the fresh air, the sea breeze and a beautiful view of the city, its port, the industrial area and the old town, as well as the near by islands. It differs on style from the typical French Catholic church, it seems more Russian or Greek

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Written by Viviana Puello

Viviana is a Colombo-American Artist, Curator, Writer and Advocate for the arts. Founder of Vivid Arts Network, Create 4 Peace, Artists For A Green Planet, Author of the book “Just Be Inspired,” and an awardwinning director and producer. Viviana Puello founded ArtTour International Magazine in 2011. Since then, she has served as the CEO, Editor-in-Chief, and the face for ArtTour International Magazine.


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