Notre-Dame de la Garde

Notre-Dame de la Garde (literally Our Lady of the Guard), is a Catholic basilica in Marseille. This Neo-Byzantine church was built by the architect Henri-Jacques Espérandieu on the foundations of an ancient fort.

The fort was located at the highest natural elevation in Marseille, a 149 m (490 ft) limestone outcrop on the south side of the Old Port of Marseille. It is an important local landmark and the site of a popular annual pilgrimage every year on Assumption Day, August 15.

The basilica was consecrated on June 5, 1864, replacing a church of the same name that was built in 1214 and restored in the 15th century. Charles II d'Anjou mentioned it as a guardpost in the 15th century, but the present basilica was built on the foundations of a 16th-century fort erected by Francis I of France to resist the 1536 siege of Marseille by the Emperor Charles V.

It consists of a lower church or crypt in the Romanesque style, carved from the rock, and an upper church of Neo-Byzantine style decorated with mosaics. A square 41m bell tower (135 ft) topped by a 12.5m belfry(42 ft) supports a monumental 11.2 m (27 ft) statue of the Madonna and Child made of copper gilded with gold leaf.

The green limestone from the Florence area that was used to build the basilica was discovered to be sensitive to atmospheric corrosion. An extensive restoration took place from 2001 to 2008, including work on mosaics damaged by candle smoke and the impact of bullets during the Liberation of France at the end of World War II.

People from Marseille traditionally see Notre-Dame de la Garde as the guardian and the protector of the city. Local inhabitants commonly refer to it as la bonne mère ("the good mother").

The exterior of the building is notable for its layered stonework in contrasting colours: white Calissane limestone alternates with layers of green Golfalina stone in a style reminiscent of Florence. Inside the upper church, the variety of coloured marbles and multicolored pictorial mosaics is of particular note. Access to the building is from a plaza 100 feet (35 m) wide that leads to a drawbridge. From the plaza one may either directly enter the crypt or climb a stairway to the entrance porch of the upper church.

The building can be considered as a succession of spaces: the porch and bell tower, a nave flanked by side chapels, the transept, dome, choir and apse.

At a height of 41 meters (130 ft), the square bell tower above the entrance porch has two identical storeys of five blind arches, with the central arch bearing a window with a small balcony. This is surmounted by a belfry, with each face made up of three large bays divided by red granite columns, behind which are abat-sons. This belfry is topped by a bordered square terrace with an openwork stone baluster bearing the arms of the city on each side and an angel with a trumpet at each corner. These four statues were carved by Eugène-Louis Lequesne.

From the square terrace a cylindrical bell tower rises to a height of 12.5 metres (40 feet). It is made of sixteen red granite columns supporting a monumental statue of the Virgin Mary, 11.2 metres (36 feet) tall. A staircase within the bell tower allows access to the terrace and to the statue. However, access to the stairs is forbidden to the public. One reaches the upper church through bronze doors designed by Henri Révoil.

The central door panels bear the monogram of the Virgin placed within a circle of pearls resembling the rosary. The tympanum above the main entrance is decorated with a mosaic of the Assumption of the Virgin, patterned after an painting by Louis Stanislas Faivre-Duffer.

The sides of the nave are divided into three equal parts. In the center of each one, a window illuminates a side chapel. The pilasters and the arches are built of stones and keystones in alternating green and white colors. Basement windows at ground level allow a bit of daylight into the underground chapels of the crypt. Since the nave is higher than the side chapels, the paired bay windows light the three spherical vaults of the nave, but these bay windows are not visible from the terrace.

The contrast is striking between the soberness of the crypt and the sumptuousness of the church above ground. The low-ceilinged crypt is dim and unadorned, while the upper church is illuminated by bay windows and richly decorated with multicolored marble and mosaics.

In the entrance hall under the bell tower are two marble statues representing Bishop Mazenod and Pope Pius IX carved by Joseph Ramus. In this hall two staircases on either side of the entrance lead to the upper church.

Built entirely in Romanesque style, the crypt is composed of a nave with a semi-circular arched ceiling, bordered by six side chapels corresponding exactly to those of the upper church. The primary altar is composed of Golfalina stone. Behind the altar is a statue of the Virgin with a bouquet. In the side chapels are plaques with the names of various donors. The side altars are devoted to Saint Philomena, Saint Andrew, Saint Rose, Saint Henri, Saint Louis and Saint Benedict Labre who was a great influence on Paul Verlaine when he converted.

The interior dimensions of the upper church are rather modest. The nave is 32.7 m long and 14 m wide. Each side chapel measures 3.8 m by 5.4 m. The upper church has sumptuous mosaics and columns and marble pilasters alternating red and white. The white Carrara marble was an obvious choice, on the other hand the choice of marble for the red was less clear. Espérandieu wanted a red that would harmonize with the mosaics and not clash too much with the whiteness of the Carrara marble. The monumental mason Jules Cantini discovered just the right marble in the locality known as "the beautiful stones" in the commune of La Celle near Brignoles (Var), a vein of red marble shot with of yellow and white that took a polish beautifully.

Mosaics on the ceilings and the walls covering approximately 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) were created between 1886 and 1892 by the Mora company from Nimes. The tiles, came from Venice, and were manufactured by craftsmen at the top of their art. Each panel comprises close to 10,000 tiles with the m2, which means that the basilica contains approximately 12 million small squares of 1 to 2 centimetres (0.79 in). These mosaics constitute an exceptional whole because of the complexity of the decorations, carried out by reputed architects and painters and due to the quality of the tiles. The floors are covered with approximately 380 sq m of Roman mosaics in a geometric pattern.

The mosaic-covered nave has an exotic atmosphere tinged with orientalism. It is topped by three cupolas decorated with identical mosaics: on a field of flowers doves form a circle around a central floret. The colours of the flowers differ for each cupola: white for the first, blue for the second and red for the third. In the four corners of each, where the dome of the cupola meets the pillars, are medallions depicting figures from the Old Testament.

The following medallions are observed: 1st cupola: Noah's Ark leaving the arch of a rainbow, Jacob's ladder and the burning bush; 2nd cupola: Moses' Tablets of Law, Aaron's Rod, a Menorah and a temple incense-burner; 3rd cupola: a vine heavy with grapes, a lily among thorns, and olive branch with leaves of silver and a palm tree.