To visit the Notre-Dame Basilica is no small affair! First we’re very excited at the idea of entering this monument that we know so well by sight. Next we must climb the famous limestone outcrop that peaks at 154 meters high. That might not seem like much, but know that it’s steep and that a visit to the Basilica must be earned. Once at the top, visitors are presented with an exceptional site: a panoramic view over Marseille which curls up into the Mediterranean. Locals regularly come to enjoy this outlook with the whole family, just to point out their house or balcony to the kids. Others come by to offer a prayer of thanks to the Basilica in the great tradition of ex-votos, of which the Basilica conserves an exceptional collection. Built in the tradition of places of worship of the second half of the 19th century in a Neo-Byzantine style by the Marseille architect Henri Espérandieu, Notre-Dame de la Garde is a little gem. As soon as you’ve mounted the stairs, a statue of Baby Jesus welcomes the climbers: a few meters away, the impressive figures are inscribed on a plaque, a way of setting things straight before entering this place of worship. For example, the pedestal under the statue of the Virgin Mary is a meter higher than the gold sculpture produced in the Christofle workshops (12.5 meters). The weight of the latter is close to 1,000 kilos. The circumference of the Baby Jesus’s wrist completes the impression of great scale with its diameter of 1.1 meters. Just above is a commemorative plaque offered by the lady telegraph operators to thank the Virgin for “having protected them as well as their families from cholera” in 1884. Ex-votos of this type cover the interior walls of the nave, as well as the exterior of the base and the ramparts. This introduction to the basilica summarizes well the visit, a sort of intimate grandeur mixed with fervent emotion.
We enter the Basilica by the crypt, representing the earthly life of the Virgin Mary: low archways, bare walls, benign darkness, hundreds of candles, chapels and benches lined up for prayer make up the space. A first emotion emerges from this peaceful atmosphere. A little staircase leads to the next floor in the heart of the Nave with warm rays of light that one by one interrupt our gaze. The first impression is sumptuous; the Notre-Dame de La Garde Basilica is decorated (aside from the walls of the Nave) with mosaics installed in the 1870s by the architect Henri Révoil. A unique interior decoration composed of maritime scenes, marvelous wildlife, litanies, biblical scenes such as the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary or coats of arms.
Next to this second skin made up of colored and gilded shards is juxtaposed another décor composed of plaques, paintings, little hanging boats and pretty silver hearts hung in the chancel: they are ex-votos that take on delicate and artistic forms. These gifts offer, beyond the moving symbolism, important information about the inhabitants, eras, fashions; they are genuine messages that come down through the ages. As many words and ills that we peruse for endless minutes before turning at last to appreciate the Basilica’s volume and perspective: which remains intimate, far from the vast building that we imagine when viewed from below. At the exit, Marseille reappears before our eyes, and we better understand why the inhabitants of Marseille love the Basilica so much.
Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde
Rue Fort du Sanctuaire
13281 MARSEILLE Cedex 06
T 04 91 13 40 80