Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille

Notre Dame de la Garde is the symbol of the city of Marseille. For 800 years, pilgrims have succeeded one another there. From the basilica, Marseille, also called the Phocaean city, offers itself to the visitor who can embrace the whole city with a glance. Perched 157 meters above sea level, visitors will discover the old port, the emblematic buildings, the Frioul archipelago and the hills that surround the city. The basilica known in the south as “the Good Mother” has known many lives.

A look-out post for Marseille

In January 1516, after his victory at Marignan in Italy, King Francis I went to Marseille for the first time and went up to the chapel to fulfil his religious duties. During his visit to the Phocaean city, he noticed that it was poorly defended. Unlike many other French cities, Marseille had no fort and its walls were very modest. Since Provence had been attached to France only 35 years earlier, no other king had yet had the opportunity to call for the construction of a fort. This idea remained in the sovereign’s mind when he went back to Paris. 8 years later, Charles V, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, tried to lay siege to the city in order to reunite the two parts of his empire. This event served as a lesson to the King of France who decided to have not one, but two forts built in Marseille: one on the island of If, known today as the Château d’If, and a second on the hill of La Garde, where he had gone to pray during his visit.

The small chapel is enclosed within the fort welcoming the governor and garrison. Francis I decided that in times of peace, citizens could access this religious building via the drawbridge, which would remain in a low position during the day. This is a unique case in history. There is no other example of a sanctuary, located inside an active fort, open to the public. This situation persisted for the next four centuries until the fort was demilitarized in 1934.

During the French Revolution, the Bourbon family was imprisoned for 6 months in the fort of Notre-Dame de la Garde following the execution of King Louis XVI. In 1793, a policy of dechristianization was implemented, and the chapel was stripped. Only a crucifix dating from the first half of the 16th century remains. It is visible today in the crypt of Notre-Dame de la Garde.

In 1807, the cult resumed at Notre-Dame de la Garde and a former sailor offered the statue of the “Virgin of the bouquet”. The population of Marseille continued to grow and the chapel became too small. Those in charge of the sanctuary obtained permission to enlarge it and knocked down the walls of two small adjacent rooms, which had been used until then by the garrison. In 1837, they replaced the Virgin offered by Joseph-Élie Escaramagne with a silver statue of the Virgin. It still dominates the high altar of the basilica. In 1842, the administrators of Notre-Dame ordered a bell from a foundryman in Lyon. 28 horses were needed to raise this 8,234-kilogram great bell to the top of the hill of La Garde. Never before had such a large bell been seen in such a small chapel.

The construction of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde

After the outbreak of cholera, more and more pilgrims came to Notre-Dame de la Garde. It became necessary to build a larger building in order to accommodate them. In 1851, the heads received permission from the Minister of War to destroy the small chapel in order to build a larger sanctuary, dominated by a bell tower. Some officers objected, fearing that the structure would cause the fort to lose its defensive value.

 In 1853, the first stone of the Basilica was laid, but it was not until 1864 that the sanctuary was consecrated without its bell tower. This was not completed until 1866 and the imposing great bell was installed, which was suddenly much better proportioned. The construction of the pedestal began and the statue of the Virgin, the work of Eugène Lequesne, was hoisted on top of it in 1870.

All the interior finishes had yet to be completed. From 1872 to 1892, magnificent mosaics were laid on the floor and walls. At the base, the basilica was of neo-Romanesque style, it was from the moment it was decorated with these Byzantine-inspired mosaics that its architecture was described as fully Romano-Byzantine.

To facilitate access to the basilica, Émile Maslin was inspired by the elevators installed in the Eiffel Tower. The elevator operated from 1892 to 1967 until its destruction in 1974. In 1897, the construction of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde was completed with the installation of two imposing bronze doors.

The monumental statue of the Virgin

The statue of the Virgin that adorns Notre-Dame de la Garde and dominates all Marseille is monumental. It was made in 1869 by electroplating, a process that was brand new at the time. The virgin measures 11.20 meters and weighs precisely 9,796 kilos. This statue is hollow, and a metal staircase goes up inside it, allowing the luckiest person to observe, Marseille, the Phocaean city through the eyes of the Virgin.


Sailors came to gather in front of the statue of Our Lady of the Sea of the church of Saint-Etienne. In 1588, the monument was demolished and the faithful then took the habit of coming to pray at Notre-Dame de la Garde. Sailors placed a large number of ex-votos there. These offerings are thanks offerings for a wish that has been granted.

The Basilica of Notre-Dame has a large collection of ex-votos offered by sailors to thank the Virgin for having saved them from a shipwreck or a storm. These models of ships or airplanes (some were donated by aviators after the war) hanging from the vault of the basilica offer a unique spectacle.

Prepare your visit

Notre-Dame de la Garde can be visited for free and is open all year round:

  • Domain: from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
  • Basilica: from 7:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
  • Crypt: from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

The visit of Notre-Dame de la Garde is free. This monument is a place of worship: masses are celebrated every day, and visitors should respect the services.

Selection of monuments in Bouches-du-Rhône :