Marseilles’ Unique Tribute to
Notre Dame de la Garde
Notre Dame de la Garde stands at the highest point of the city of Marseilles
Illuminated by night, the Basilica shines over the bay like a beacon. And it has been exactly that for centuries for thousands of sailors and fishermen in this port city. The first church built on Garde Hill, an observation post since Roman times, was a small chapel in 1214. Sailors would climb the hill to pray for safe voyages and then return to give thanks when they came home unharmed.
In the 16th century, King Francis I ordered a fort erected around the church so it would protect Marseille from the Spanish invasions of Charles V. Visitors can still cross the drawbridge and see the old ramparts, reminders of its militant history.
The current domed Basilica was built in 1853 and consecrated in 1864 with great celebration. It is topped by the monumental gold-plated statue of “la Bonne Mère” holding the Christ Child. This statue reminds the Marseille people that Our Lady watches, guards and protects the city, and especially the sailors and fishermen.
The city's maritime roots are apparent everywhere inside the Basilica from the anchor motifs to the intricate models of boats present everywhere - hanging from the ceiling or displayed in the outer corridors in glass cases. Here and everywhere, we find these votive offerings, recalling the many miracles and assists at sea that Our Lady worked for her dear Marseillians.
“If you want to learn to pray, go to sea.” This maxim is well-known in Marseilles, and those setting out to sea – on short fishing trips or long voyages – have turned to their Good Mother for centuries, asking her assistance and guidance.
Ex voto replicas of ships saved at sea hang everywhere from the vaults of the Basilica
Here is a testimony of a visitor to Marseille in 1644 who witnessed two sailors thanking Our Lady with a handcrafted ship:
“Yesterday, I saw at the foot of Garde Hill a pilgrim who was climbing it barefoot, devoutly reciting prayers. Another followed him carrying his shoes, and I judged by their clothes that they were sailors. These good men met me at the door of the chapel, which had just closed. They told me that they had come to fulfill a vow and to make an offering to Notre Dame de la Garde of a small ship they had crafted, and they showed it to me.
“The skill and detail of this work was remarkable, for even the smallest parts of a large vessel were reproduced with what seemed to me unmatched accuracy…
“They told me that they had ventured to sea to trade dry cod and olive oil when they were assailed by a horrible storm that broke their masts and tore away their rudder. In this dire situation, they turned to Notre Dame de la Garde, who saved them from certain loss.
“After hearing this story I found Berthelet and asked him to open the chapel, and then they themselves hung their ship from the ceiling vault, where so many other small vessels hang like a multitude of lamps.” (Excerpt from Notre Dame de la Garde by Françoise Hildesheimer)
Details of model ship offered to Our Lady by sailors
Archibald, an oil painting ex-voto
L'Eridan, commissioned in 1901
The paintings make the viewer feel the tense atmosphere of the drama played out on sea and the sense of helplessness and fear of the crew who feared their last hour had arrived. In each case, the painting is the fulfillment of a vow: “Help me, la bonne Mère. Save me, and I promise to honor you and make your mercy known to all.”
A wall of ex-voto paintings and plaques commemorating the intercession of Our Lady for her patrons at sea
Wraparound terraces offer breathtaking 360 degree views of Marseille, the bay, the hills, the Chateau d'If and Frioul Islands