The cultural melting pot of the south of France
Marseille has long suffered from an image problem. Anyone who follows French news could be forgiven for associating France’s second city primarily with gang violence – but that does a huge injustice not just to today’s vibrant city, but to its rich history.
This skewed orientation means we can easily overlook the vital role Marseille has played as a trading post over the millennia, attracting people and objects from all over the world.
And nowhere is this melting pot of cultures more evident than in the city’s built heritage. You can trace the history of Marseille through its churches, forts and towers. Here we look at three of them.
Basilica of St. Victor
The Saint-Victor basilica is proof of Marseille’s magnetism for distant visitors. At the beginning of the 5th century, a Christian monk ascetic and theologian named Cassien traveled from his native Romania to Egypt, then to Constantinople and finally to Marseilles, where he founded a famous abbey on the southern shore of the port.
The Abbey (now Basilica) of Saint Victor is the only surviving building of the two 5th-century Cassian monasteries established in the Christian quarter of the town – one for men, dedicated to Saint Victor, and the other for women, dedicated to Saint-Sauveur.
Contemporary pilgrims and relic lovers can still visit the relics of Cassian’s head and right arm, which remain in the crypt of the church he founded.
Cassian can claim to have brought Christian monasticism to Gaul from the East, a movement that would profoundly affect Western culture. This is just one example of the many ways Marseille has evolved and prospered as it encounters travellers.
The fortified church we see today, however, is actually much more recent – from the 11th century no less. After the Saracens destroyed the original abbey, Abbot Isarn decided in 1070 to rebuild it more solidly by erecting a veritable fortress to repel potential invaders. His fortifications, and those of his successors, ensured the survival of the church, which still seems impenetrable.
Visitors are nevertheless welcome to enter the church and admire the amazing collection of Roman, pagan and early Christian sarcophagi in the crypt.
This 17th century building stands on the site of the former commandery of the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, alias the Knights Hospitaller.
A commandery was an operations outpost of a military order, and archaeological work in 2005 showed that the commandery comprised several buildings, including a hospital, a commander’s palace, a chapel, and a cemetery.
You can still see elements of the chapel of the commandery, integrated into the embankment of the fort that Louis XIV had built in 1660. Fort Saint-Jean and its companion, Fort Saint-Nicolas, were intended to reaffirm the authority of the king over the city. Since 2013, visitors have been able to access Fort Saint-Jean, which is now part of the Mucem museum complex, via two pedestrian walkways.
Basilica of Our Lady of the Guard
From the ascetic monasticism of the Saint-Victor basilica and the militaristic predominance of Fort Saint-Jean, we move on to a more sparkling religious spectacle with the Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica. From its elevated position on a rocky hill, this enormous church serves as a landmark and beacon of hope for the entire city.
Today, a giant golden statue of the Madonna and Child stands atop the basilica’s bell tower, towering over the city’s more than 800,000 residents, who have named the statue “Good Mother.”
Inside, visual evidence of Marseille’s love for diverse cultures shines on every surface and every curved arc. Built in the 19th century, the basilica is often described as “neo-Romanesque-Byzantine”, a label that is not easily torn off in language. However, it accurately describes the fusion of styles that was currently in vogue when 23-year-old Protestant architect Henry-Jacques Espérandieu began rebuilding the Catholic church in 1853.
Round “Romanesque” arches punctuate the structure, and domes float above its cavernous spaces. The walls and vaults shimmer with the glittering golden mosaics we associate with the churches of Byzantium, later called Constantinople and now known as Istanbul. Pillars and arches in alternating blocks of white Carrara marble and red Brignoles marble add even more dynamism.
The diversity of peoples and cultures that we associate with the contemporary city of Marseille seem to be represented here in a glorious explosion of color and light. Although many of the city’s buildings tell the story of its long cosmopolitan past, Notre-Dame de la Garde seems to do so with the most joy.
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