The Churches of Marseille Print E-mail
Marseille - What To See

Saint Victor Abbey, MarseilleIn its millennia of history Marseille has accumulated very many churches, of which three are outstanding. 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 left) and the cathedral. logoClick here to book a hotel in Marseille

A host more 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.


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.

Part of the crypt of Saint Victor Abbey, Marseille

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.

There 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 artifacts 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 run by Les Amis de Saint Victor. The 2013 Festival de Musique in this incomparable setting runs from 26 September to 5 December. Click here for the programme.

Also of interest: the little vineyard - the only one in Marseille - on the hill opposite the Abbey overlooking the Old Port.

150 vines were planted here in March 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.

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Marseille Cathedral La MajorMany 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.

The 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 Longchamp (1862), the Palais du Pharo (1854) 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, with steamers unloading 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 left.

19th century view of Marseille cathedralBuilt in snazzy green and white stone stripes and a mix of Romanesque, Byzantine and Gothic styles, the cathedral reflects this grandiose prosperity. Inside, 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.

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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).

Today, on the edge of the Old Town (Panier) and the Old Port, surrounded by construction works, Sainte Marie Majeure has a faint aura of neglect and marginalisation. But when the broad esplanades all around it - currently being renovated - are back in use, it should come back into its own again. A major building project is also underway to convert the vaults into shops.

The Assumption Day Procession in Marseille, 15 AugustAnd there is one day of the year on which Sainte Marie Majeure becomes the centre of attention: 15 August, Assumption Day, when a golden statue of the Virgin is carried from the Cathedral in ceremonial procession.

The Sainte Marie procession 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 on this tradition. Between 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 12th 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.

Disgracefully, 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.

Watercolour of the Vieille Major, MarseilleLa Vieille Major is currently closed for restoration 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.

The whole site is worth a visit when you're in the area of the Old Town, for the stunning location and a quick look at the lovely Vieille Major, pictured in a watercolour 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

Church of Saint Laurent, MarseilleSaint 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.

It sits on a hill between the Panier and the Old Port, which it dominates (it's thought a Greek temple to Apollo previously stood on this site).

Miraculously the Eglise Saint Laurent (pictured left) 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 .

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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.

Saint 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.

Church of Saint Ferreol les Augustins, MarseilleConstantly 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 and in 2010 the church closed temporarily for restoration.

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



Saint Barbara's Wheat in Provence at ChristmasChristmas in Provence starts on 4 December! Read about Saint Barbara's wheat and other local Christmas traditions.


Saint Victor Abbey Marseille by nightNow in its 47th year, the prestigious music festival at Marseille's historic, beautiful Saint Victor Abbey continues until 5 December. Last concert: Christmas carols.


Provence olive oilProvence's festivals celebrating the season's new olive oil are on in the Alpilles and Aix. 30 Nov-15 Dec.


Santa ClausChristmas shopping in Marseille this year features fireworks on the Old Port, giant santons on the Canebière, mulled wine and cakes in the Old Town - and artificial snow on the rue Sainte. From 6 Dec.


SkiingHeading to the ski slopes? Here's how to get there from Marseille or Aix by snow bus or snow train.


Christmas on the Cours Mirabeau, AixProvence's colourful Christmas markets are opening for business. Find the best fairs and festivals in Marseille, Aix, Avignon, Arles and elsewhere.


Descente des BergersCount the sheep (there'll be plenty of them around) at the Fête des Bergers, or Shepherds' Festival, in Istres, on the Blue Coast. Sheepdog trials, sheep processions, a banquet (with roast lamb?) 29 Nov-8 Dec.


Rose wine of ProvenceStar billing: Miraval, the rosé wine produced by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, has just been named one of the top 100 wines in the world.


MSC SplendidaWe report from this autumn's Top Cruise conference about the new cruise routes from Marseille in 2014 and the latest developments in the city's booming cruise tourism.


Avignon fringe theatre festivalThe summer 2014 dates have now been confirmed for the Avignon "In" and "Off" Theatre Festivals.


CalissonsPuzzling over Christmas gift ideas? Here are our top five Provence-themed presents, all available to buy by mail order.


Claude Gazier paintingClaude Gazier's moody paintings evoke the smokey atmosphere of vintage film stills. La Ciotat, until 7 Dec.


Victoire Belezy as Fanny in Daniel Auteuil's Pagnol trilogyThe first two parts of actor-director Daniel Auteuil's new version of Marcel Pagnol's classic Marius, Fanny, César trilogy, set on the Old Port of Marseile, are now playing in UK cinemas.


Marilyn by Andy WarholWarhol, Hopper, Bacon, Magritte, Picasso, Delvaux: diary dates for some of the big art shows lined up for Marseille in 2014.


Henri Lebasque Nude Asleep on a BedWomen of Provence, as seen by male painters and by themselves, are the subject of a new show at the Musée Regards de Provence, Marseille. Until 24 Feb 2014.


Ballet Preljocac in Aix en ProvenceTake a backstage tour of the Pavillon Noir in Aix en Provence (14 Dec) or watch Angelin Preljocaj and the Ballet Preljocaj in rehearsal (10 Dec). These events are free.


Image from the film about the artist Pierre-Auguste RenoirNow available on DVD: France's entry for the Oscars is Renoir, a film about the artist's life shot in the Var near Saint Tropez.


Ceramic by Le Corbusier Ceramics, sculptures, tapestries, paintings - and erotic sketches: Le Corbusier was not just a revolutionary architect, as this must-see show at the J1 Hangar, Marseille, reveals. Until 22 Dec.


Lucien Clergue's photograph of Le Testament dOrphee in Les Baux de Provence Jean Cocteau's Le Testament d'Orphée was filmed in the Valley of Hell near Les Baux de Provence. A show of photographs by Lucien Clergue, in Les Baux, chronicles the shooting. Until 31 Dec.


Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong in Stephen Frears new filmThe disgraced Tour de France cyclist Lance Armstrong is the subject of a new film by the Oscar-nominated director Stephen Frears, now shooting in the French Alps.