Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica (the
Basilica of Our Lady of the Watch) majestically overlooks the whole
of central Marseilles, in the Bouches-du-Rhône in Provence. This
ornate basilica consists of two chapels, one neo-Byzantine and the
other neo-Romantic, and it is situated at the highest natural point
in Marseille, a limestone outcrop that stands 162 metres (532 feet)
high on the south side of the Old Port which can be seen from almost
every point in the city.
As well as being a major local landmark, it is
the site of a popular annual pilgrimage every Assumption Day (15
August). Local inhabitants commonly refer to it as la bonne mère
('the good mother'). Marseilles has been a seaport since it was
founded by the Ancient Greeks in about 600 BC. In 1214, the abbot of
St Victor allowed a hermit, Master Peter, to construct a chapel on
the hill, and he dedicated it to Our Lady of the Watch, the
traditional guardian of seafarers.
Over the years the chapel became an
object of pilgrimage for Christians, and in 1477 a new chapel was
built on the site of the old one. In 1525 the French king, Francois
I, built a fortification on the hill alongside the chapel to guard
the entrance to the port (the door and drawbridge have been
preserved to this day). The new chapel was consecrated in 1544 after
being altered and enlarged, but in the nineteenth century a
replacement for the old chapel was commissioned.
Saint Charles Eugene de Mazenod, bishop of
Marseilles was the driving force for this new and grand project, and
the design was supplied by the architect, Jacques Henri Esperandieu
(1829-1874), although the Ministry of War first had to be persuaded
to abandon its fort to make way for the much larger basilica. Work
commenced in 1853, when the foundation stone was laid on 11
September, and was completed in 1864, with the consecration taking
place on 4 June 1864.
The basilica's style was matched to that of the
Cathedral of Sainte Marie Majeure on the opposite side of the port,
and its dedication was the same as the previous chapel on this site.
The salamander badge of Francois I can to be found within the
basilica's north porch, and the construction is surmounted by a
sixty metre high (197 feet) belfry which is topped by a huge statue
of the Virgin and Child, visible across much of the city and for
miles out at sea.
Construction of the basilica required a massive
170,000 tons of material, including twenty-three shiploads of marble
and porphyry from Italy. The interior is decorated with inlaid
marble, mosaics and murals. Many of the walls are covered with
hundreds of ex-votos, including paintings, plaques, model boats, war
medals and even football shirts given by players and supporters of
Olympique de Marseille, the city's football team.
Three photos on this page kindly contributed by Claire
Delorme, and one used under the GNU Free Documentation Licence.