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Marseilles’ Unique Tribute to
Notre Dame de la Garde

Elaine Jordan
Notre Dame de la Garde

Notre Dame de la Garde stands at the highest point of the city of Marseilles

Wherever you are in Marseille, look up and you will see the golden statue of the Notre Dame de la Garde, atop the Romano-Byzantine Basilica rising up from the city's highest hill, La Garde [The Guard]. The people of Marseille consider her as the guardian of their city, and call her “la Bonne Mère,” or the Good Mother.

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.

The ex-votos

“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 votos notre dame de la garde

Ex voto replicas of ships saved at sea hang everywhere from the vaults of the Basilica

In the 17th century, it became the custom for those who suffered near disasters and had recourse to her to thank Notre Dame de la Garde with an offering of thanks. In this Basilica the ex-votos – literally, from the vow made – reflect the livelihood of the people: to thank Our Lady the survivors commission oil paintings of their ships in peril at sea or craft model replicas of their ships that hang from the ceiling vaults.

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 basilica marseilles

Details of model ship offered to Our Lady by sailors

On another wall are over 60 oil paintings offered to Notre Dame de la Garde by sailors saved at sea. Some of these are truly works of art; all tell a poignant story. Let us look at a few:

archibald ex voto painting

Archibald, an oil painting ex-voto

The captain of the brig Archibald commissioned Francois Roux, official painter of the French Navy, to make this oil painting depicting the disaster that befell him in 1841. The plaque under the painting tells us that during a storm the brig ran aground along the banks of Pas-de-Calais and was swept out to sea by the wind and waves. The captain and seven sailors prayed to Our Lady and escaped in a canoe.

l'eridan oil painting ex voto

L'Eridan, commissioned in 1901

L'Eridan was painted by Jacques Joseph Solari in 1901. Carrying troops for an expedition to China, the ship was caught in a typhoon off the coast of Haïnan. Facing certain shipwreck, Captain Ristorcelli had recourse to Our Lady and managed, through her intercession, to make it to the harbor of Da Nang, Vietnam.

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.”

Paintings ex voto marseilles

A wall of ex-voto paintings and plaques commemorating the intercession of Our Lady for her patrons at sea

Although many of the older ex-voto paintings and ships were destroyed during the French Revolution, Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseille still has one of the richest collections of marine ex-votos.

panorama of Marseilles

Wraparound terraces offer breathtaking 360 degree views of Marseille, the bay, the hills, the Chateau d'If and Frioul Islands

notre dame

Posted October 3, 2015


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