Masterpieces of Light and Space: Saint-Ferrol des Augustins, Marseilles, France

Marseille, France

The Vieux Port of Marseille is a pretty stunning location with views of rows and rows of boats sitting in turquoise water, cafes and brasseries, the citadel and Abbey of St. Victor, and the shining beacon of Notre Dame de la Garde overlooking it all, and one building stands out amongst the rest. It’s the building that will blind you as it reflects the sun, will make you need to take HDR photos to avoid a hot spot with your camera, and may pique your curiosity, the church of Saint-Ferrol des Augustins.

Marseille, France

Unlike Notre Dame de la Garde and Marseille Cathedral, this is a parish church. Apparently the church has been here in one form or another, continuously built upon and expanded since it was owned by the knights Templar in the 12th century. The Baroque facade and Italian style bell towers were built much later.

Smaller chapels dot the edges of the main sacred space, but there’s no super famous artwork or relics or famous dead folks to go visit it. It’s simply a nice and extremely old church that you should visit as you walk around the old port.


Masterpieces of Light and Space: Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, Marseille, France

Marseille, FranceNotre Dame de la Garde sits atop the highest hill overlooking old Marseille

High on a hilltop above Marseille lies a beautiful church. That sentence is so ridiculous that I’m leaving it in the blog post. Ha! Anyhow, it’s true, Notre Dame de la Garde sits high above Marseille on a hilltop. Specifically it sits high above the Vieux Port of Marseille, the ancient port. Given the decorative motif and the maritime history of the city, one has to wonder if the same hilltop played host to a temple of Poseidon in the Greek times, or perhaps Neptune in the Roman. I think you’ll see why in just a moment or two. First, though, let’s talk about getting there.

Marseille, FranceThe key direction is UP

Finding Notre Dame is pretty easy from the old city of Marseille. Start at the Citadel or Abbey of St. Victor and walk up the hill. Keep walking. and walking. and walking. and walking. It’s farther than it looks from the port, but you get to walk through fields of beautiful Provençal flowers and you’ll also get a stunning view of the port and Chateau d’If floating out there in the Mediterranean.

Marseille, FranceWait…there’s more climbing involved?!?

After the long trek up the hill, we didn’t really think there was a better place to start our visit at Notre Dame de la Garde but the bottom. Yeah. We started in the crypt.

Marseille, FranceThose candles put off a lot of heat. A different take on fire-and-brimstone.

The crypt was crowded, fairly compact for a church of this size, and full of the living. I thought the heat was being put off by the candles, but it could have also been the accumulation of body heat from the visitors. Certainly not the body heat of the residents I would imagine (yeah, I just said that.)

Marseille, France
The chancel from the crypt’s exit

After moving up from the crypt to the main level, it becomes obvious very quickly that this basilica is thematic. Thematic in the sense that all of the decoration seems to be nautical. Nautical in the sense that this is a place where sailors and fishermen would worship before heading out to sea. The colors and patterns are not that different from Marseille Cathedral or San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, but the ships, airplanes, anchors, octopi, and everything else nautical certainly sets it apart.
Marseille, FranceShips, planes, anything that could move cargo

The church itself is beautiful, and the ships and airplanes and basically all of the artwork are beautifully done, if a bit morbid. There is an entire wall of paintings of maritime and other transportation disasters. Kids getting run over by horse-drawn carts, sinking ships, plane crashes, etc. That’s a bit dark and contrasts in a strong and beautiful way against the otherwise ethereal surroundings.

Marseille, FranceSee, I told you. Transportation disasters.

According to Atlas Obscura, the miniatures and paintings are examples of “ex-voto” or rather, appreciations for the help of Notre Dame de la Garde in recovery from accidents, acts of war, or whatever might be depicted in the particular item. In addition to these crafted pieces are also life rings from boats, bandages, crutches, and other items. The site is a pilgrimage destination every Assumption Day (August 15) and people will leave ex-voto items to thank Le Bonne Mere for her assistance in the pilgrimage.
Marseille, FranceLe Bonne Mere herself

Between the nearly Arabesque gold leaf and repetitive patterns of the decoration, the marble from Florence laid in striated patterns, and its nautical ex-voto, the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde is one of the most interesting churches I have ever visited. It’s definitely a treasure that we should all be glad was restored after it’s damage during the French liberation in 1944, and dare I say if I were a sailor in Marseille, this would be a regular stop for peace of mind.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Marseille Cathedral, Marseille, France

Marseille, France

Marseille has been populated on the Mediterranean coast of France for thousands of years…literally. It was once a Greek city-state, a Carthaginian trading hub, and then a Roman port. The old city of Marseille is for lack of a better word, ancient. The city’s economic importance throughout the middle ages kept it populated and hell, people still live there along the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, eating at very specific times throughout the day…not eating in between (can you tell what stuck with me most about France?) We were well aware of the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde (which I have yet to write about) before visiting, but hadn’t given much thought to any other major churches in Marseille. The Abbey of St. Victor was amazing, but the Cathedral of St. Mary-Major (Marseille Cathedral) was essentially what I expected to see from my not exactly perfectly understanding of the essence of France.

Marseille, France
Marseille Cathedral, right on the waterfront

Marseille Cathedral itself is a beautiful and imposing edifice with striated patterns in the bricks and very, for lack of a better word, French features. I don’t know how else to describe the shape of the domes and the decorative motif.

Marseille, France The Nave of Marseille Cathedral

We walked in just about 30 minutes before they were going to close up for the day (yes, we were THOSE people) and it was very quiet. I was immediately struck by the large, beautiful banners. I felt like I had walked into a coronation scene from some sort of medieval movie.

Marseille, France
Organ Trumpets at Marseille Cathedral

I’d really like to have had the opportunity to sit through a service here because the organ was imposing (heheh…that makes me giggle.) The stained glass was very French looking. Almost as if it had been made in a rococo style, but that’s not at all the style I mean. I guess it wouldn’t look out of place in the background of a rococo style painting. For what it’s worth, I do not at all like the rococo style, but I like the stained glass. I’ll let you interpret that.

Marseille, France Illuminated statuary

It may have simply been a function of the time of the year that we were there, or the time of day,or whatever, but the windows seemed to illuminate certain statues in a very holy way.

Marseille, France
Altar and Chancel

Even the altar and chancel of Marseille Cathedral were adorned with colorful, ornate banners. I really feel like the textiles of this church were among the most impressive textiles I’ve seen anywhere, what with the amount of drapery and whatnot. Clearly the church was designed in such a way that the amount of drapery would not interfere with the design of the natural lighting.

Tucked down below the wall of the old city, a bit of a walk from anything really, Marseille Cathedral should definitely be on your “hit list” if you’re going to visit France’s “second city.”

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Abbey of St. Victor, Marseille, France

Marseille, France
The Abbey of St. Victor, exterior (I think)

During my last semester at university, I took a History of Western Europe class that I mostly slept through. You know, because I was 21 years old, already knew everything (ha! if only I knew what I didn’t know!) and couldn’t figure out how to go to bed early enough to get a good night of rest on school nights. Anyhow, one of the things we learned about a bit was the trade in Holy Relics. I thought it was something that happened long ago, and that there weren’t really like, the kneecaps of saints still on display.
Marseille, France
Reliquary at the Abbey of St. Victor, Marseille, France


I COULD NOT HAVE BEEN MORE WRONG. Though I had at this point been to Cathedrals and old churches in the United States, Spain, and China (Hong Kong and Macau), I had yet to run into a decoration that used to be somebody. I know that the word decoration makes light somewhat of what relics represent, but I can’t come up with anything better at the moment.
Marseille, France
Anyhow, it turns out that the Abbey of St. Victor was one of the most important abbeys in the Mediterranean world in the middle ages, and it’s stuffed to the gills with relics. It was burned to the ground once by barbarians, and it’s a pretty amazing example of medieval romanesque architecture in the darkest and mustiest way. You can really imagine a knight in shining armor saying his prayers here before getting on a ship to sack Jerusalem.


Marseille, France
Though absolutely beautiful, this Abbey was definitely built during the dark ages

I guess the Abbey of St. Victor holds a very vibrant place in my memory because it’s one of the oldest places I’ve ever been that wasn’t in ruins. It was built in the 5th or 6th century, destroyed in the 7th or 8th century, and has had a presence ever since. It’s kinda crazy that it’s not an empty shell of a building that requires imagination to envision, but rather a place you can walk around and imagine who had been there instead.


Marseille, France
My imagination fills these pews with costumed people from a Renn. Faire

Should you find yourself in Marseille, I suggest a visit to the Abbey of St. Victor. Take in the relics and the history, take in a deep breath, and be grateful that you don’t live in the middle ages.