Saint Victor Abbey, MarseilleIn its millennia of history Marseille has accumulated very many churches, of which three are outstanding examples.

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The first, Notre Dame de la Garde, is a must-see, and is discussed in a separate article. The other two not to be missed are Saint Victor Abbey (pictured top left) and the cathedral.

A host of smaller churches are of somewhat lesser interest, but certainly worth peeping into in passing (a selection of the best ones is listed below).

This is a general guide to the most historic churches of Marseille. Click here if you are looking for churches in Marseille which have English-language religious services.

SAINT VICTOR ABBEY

The atmospheric Abbaye Saint Victor is one of the oldest and most beautiful in Marseille and, like so much else in the city, steeped in many layers of history.

Despite the ravages and indignities it has suffered over the centuries, it remains well worth a visit, which could be easily combined with a trip to Notre Dame de la Garde further up the hill.

Part of the crypt of Saint Victor Abbey, MarseilleThere was originally a quarry on the site, then a Hellenistic and, later, Christian necropolis. Saint Victor was massacred by Romans there in 302 and a monastery was founded in the early 5th century. The first church dates back to 440.

The monastery was destroyed by Saracens, but was rebuilt in the early 11th century and became one of the most prestigious and powerful religious centres in the South of France.

Guillaume Grimoard, who was made abbot of Saint Victor on 2 August 1361, became Pope Urban V of Avignon the following year. He enlarged the church and surrounded the abbey with high crenellated walls.

The abbey's importance began to decline from the early 16th century and, somewhere along the line, the contents of its exceptional library of ancient manuscripts disappeared into private collections unknown.

In 1739 it was secularised and the French Revolution seemed to deal it the coup de grâce. In 1794 it was stripped of its treasures.

The relics were burned, the gold and silver objects were melted down to make coins and the building itself became a warehouse, prison and barracks.

Yet Saint Victor still contains many exquisite artefacts and the building itself possesses a tremendous, brooding majesty in its own right.

The main church has sarcophagi, fine altars and stained-glass windows and a superb 14th century stone carving of Victor himself astride a horse in the keystone above the chancel.

There is a small charge for the crypt visit, but it's a highlight. Recently reopened after an extensive restoration programme, with atmospheric new lighting, this cavernous, maze-like space (a small segment of it, the Chapelle Saint-André, is pictured above) is packed with sarcophagi, sculptures, frescos, mosaics and the famous Black Virgin, Notre Dame de la Confession.

The Black Virgin of Saint Victor, MarseillePictured, this little walnut-wood figure, dating from the 12th century, was saved from the infidel revolutionaries and is now the centrepiece of the abbey's great Candlemas celebrations.

Every autumn since 1965, Saint Victor has hosted a renowned festival of classical, religious and contemporary music concerts.

Also of interest: the little vineyard on the hill opposite the Abbey overlooking the Old Port. 150 vines were planted here in 2011, resuming an age-old tradition of viticulture formerly practised by the monks. It is hoped that eventually the vines will be mature enough to produce an authentic vin de Marseille once again.

Where: Saint Victor Abbey, 3 rue de l'Abbaye 13007 Marseille. Open daily from 9am to 7pm.

Official website for Saint Victor Abbey

MARSEILLE'S CATHEDRAL (LA MAJOR)

Many people assume that Notre Dame de la Garde is the cathedral of Marseille. Not so: in fact, it's Sainte Marie Majeure, an enormous structure dramatically positioned right next to the former commercial port.

Marseille Cathedral La MajorThe first cathedral to be constructed in France in two centuries, Sainte Marie Majeure (also known as La Nouvelle Major or just plain La Major) was the brainchild of Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who aimed thus to ingratiate himself with the Church, as well as with Marseille itself by providing the city with a prestigious landmark.

When it was begun, in 1852, the city was booming and mighty monuments were popping up all over the place. Within the space of less than two decades, the face of Marseille was transformed: by Saint Charles station (1848), the Bourse (1852), the Palais du Pharo (1854), the Palais Longchamp (1862) and Notre Dame de la Garde (1864).

France's trade and power were fast expanding, and the cathedral was to be another symbol of Marseille's flagship colonial status as the gateway to the Orient.

Steamers unloaded exotic cargoes from afar right next to it, as can be seen in the striking 19th century view of the cathedral from the sea, pictured. These days you're just as likely to see a ferry or a cruise ship.

19th century view of Marseille cathedralThe cathedral has a suitably oriental look: the Byzantine-style façade alternates stripes of white stone and of green stone from Tuscany. Inside there are more stripes: white stone sandwiched this time with red stone from nearby Cassis.

It's cavernous. The proportions are comparable to Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome: 142 metres / 466 feet long with a central cupola - the sixth largest in the world - soaring up to 70 metres / 230 feet at its highest point. It can accommodate 3,000 people.

But the building work dragged on as money kept running out. Architects died while waiting for it to be completed. Léon Vaudoyer (1803-1872) was the first on the project.

Then came Henri Espérandieu (1829-1874), also the architect behind the Palais Longchamp and Notre Dame de la Garde. The job was finally completed in 1893 by Henri-Antoine Révoil and the church consecrated in 1896.

The inner decorations, according to a display within the cathedral itself, were never fully realised. It has elaborate mosaic floors, but the scattered artefacts to be found there, by Louis Botinelly, Auguste Carli, Jules Cantini - all local artists - seem lost in the vast, echoing interior (though, if this interests you, you can see a scale model made of matchsticks by a local enthusiast).

On the edge of the Old Town (Panier) and the Old Port, and until recently, surrounded by construction works and busy traffic freeways, Sainte Marie Majeure has long suffered from an aura of neglect and marginalisation.

But its vaults have now been beautifully renovated and converted into high-end shops and bars. The polychrome façade has been cleaned and repaired, the magnificent double staircase restored and the entire area landscaped, with a park, plenty of seating and a children's playground overlooking the sea. This is now a very attractive spot to linger in.

And there is one day of the year on which Sainte Marie Majeure becomes the centre of attention: 15 August, Assumption Day (a public holiday in France), when a golden statue of the Virgin is carried from the Cathedral in ceremonial procession.

It generally starts in the late afternoon on 15 August and winds through the back-streets of the Old Town, whose passionately devout Neapolitan immigrant community was at the origins of this tradition.

The Assumption Day Procession in Marseille, 15 AugustBetween six and seven thousand people attend, making this the most important Assumption Day procession in the south of France.

On the previous evening, 14 August, there is also a torchlight procession in honour of the Assumption up to Notre Dame de la Garde, where a mass is held.

The current edifice is not the first church to be built on this site: the foundations contain vestiges of a paleo-Christian cathedral dating from the 5th century. There are few surviving remains of this building, principally floor mosaics and stone carvings.

 

This was succeeded by another cathedral, La Vieille Major, in the middle of the 11th century. Built, like its predecessor, of pink limestone from the nearby town of La Couronne, it was - and still is - a very lovely example of provençal Romanesque architecture.

Watercolour of the Vieille Major, MarseilleDisgracefully, it was decided in 1852 to raze this jewel to clear the way for the new cathedral. The following year conservationists and public pressure-groups managed to secure a stay of execution and rescue those parts which had not yet been demolished.

Structurally fragile, La Vieille Major is closed to the public indefinitely but can be viewed from the outside. You need to walk right round the current cathedral to see it as it's tucked away behind it.

Pictured, a watercolour of the Vieille Major by François Roustan, who supervised and published a 1905 book on the restoration work.

Where: La Major Cathedral, place de la Major, 13002 Marseille. Closed Mondays.

 

 

Also Of Interest

Saint Laurent Originally the parish church of sailors and fishermen, this simple but very lovely old romanesque edifice with its octagonal bell tower was built at the beginning of the 13th century of pinkish stone from the quarries of La Couronne.

Church of Saint Laurent, MarseilleIt sits on a hill between the Old Town, or Panier and the Old Port, which it dominates, offering splendid views across the city. It's thought a Greek temple to Apollo previously stood on this site.

Miraculously the Eglise Saint Laurent (pictured) has survived a series of threats, from pillaging during the Reformation to the dynamiting of the Old Town by the Nazis in 1943, though its foundations were damaged by these explosions. It is generally open for visits at weekends only.

Where: Church of Saint Laurent, 16 esplanade de la Tourette, 13002 Marseille.

Notre Dame des Accoules Also on the edge of the Old Town, one of the oldest buildings in Marseille is the Accoules Church, or at least its studded tower, a distinctive feature of the city skyline which dates from the 14th century. The original church itself was destroyed in 1794 for housing political meetings during the French Revolution and the current interior is unremarkable.

Where: Notre Dame des Accoules, 4 montée des Accoules, 13002 Marseille .

Saint Vincent de Paul. The twin neo-Gothic spires of this imposing church dominate the top of the Canebière. It's also known locally as Les Réformés, referencing an older church on the same site which it replaced in the mid 19th century (the nearest metro station is named, indeed, Réformés).

Every year, at the inauguration of the city's historic Santons Fair on the last Sunday of November, this church is the location for the traditional santon-makers' mass.

Its most remarkable architectural feature is the superb bronze doors with their intricate allegorical bas reliefs of animals signifying all the virtues and vices you can think of.

Note, too, the fine stained glass windows by Edouard Didron and the statue of Joan of Arc by the Marseille sculptor Louis Botinelly guarding the front of the church from English aggressors.

Where: Church of Saint Vincent de Paul, 8 cours Franklin Roosevelt, 13001 Marseille.

Church of Saint Ferreol les Augustins, MarseilleSaint Ferréol les Augustins: The bright white wedding cake contours of this church (pictured) make for one of the most striking silhouettes on the Old Port. The building of it first began in the 15th century but it has undergone many changes, expansions and part-demolitions since then: the façade, for instance, dates from the late 19th century.

Constantly under threat from subsidence (it's constructed on marshy land) and from developers with a beady eye on its prime position, the church's survival to this day is something of a small miracle.

It was also the site of a tussle between the French and the Spanish over the remains of Saint Louis d'Anjou, which were lodged in the church until the Spanish claimed them in 1423.

In 1956, two vertebrae were sent back to Marseille, but these were stolen in 1993. The devout can console themselves with the sight of the empty reliquary.

Inside you'll also find several paintings by the baroque artist Michel Serre, sculptures by Louis Bottinelly and Élie-Jean Vézien and an oasis of calm and coolness.

Where: Church of Saint Ferréol les Augustins, quai des Belges, 13001 Marseille.

Saint Théodore: (also known as Les Récollets) The Eglise Saint Théodore is a gloriously crumbling baroque edifice established in 1633 and rebuilt in the following century.

The Order of Recollets is a branch of the Franciscans and derives its name from the Latin recollectos, meaning "rapt in prayer."

The interior is a magnificent panoply of carved stone, bas reliefs and frescos, by Michel Serre and Antoine Sublet, but parts of it have been badly damaged by fires and floods.

Where: Church of Saint Théodore, corner of 1 rue de l'Etoile / 46, rue des Dominicaines, 13001 Marseille.

 

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