Cathédrale De La Major, Détail©micalefotcm
©Cathédrale De La Major, Détail|Pascal MICALEF

'La Cathédrale de la Major'

This Marseille architectural jewel

‘La cathédrale de la Major’ is located in the 2nd district of Marseille, between le ‘Panier’ district and the Joliette area,  and near the ‘Vieux Port’ (Old Port). Close to the Mucem, the Romano-Byzantine Cathedral  contrasts  perfectly with  the modern building facing it. Discover the history of this Marseille emblem.

The history of  ‘La Major’

Also known as the Cathedral of Sainte-Marie-Majeure, or “La Major” by the people of Marseille, La Major  is the only cathedral built in the 19th century. No cathedral had been built for 200 years! The construction of the cathedral was therefore just as innovative as that of a railway station, for example.

At the dawn of the 19th century, Marseille shines. The city experienced very strong economic and demographic growth, and to cope with the explosion in trade, Marseille was adorned with industrial buildings and infractrustures.

The choice of location for the Cathedral was well thought out: near the new commercial port, moved from the ‘Vieux-Port’ to ‘La Joliette’. It is indeed here, at ‘La Joliette’, that ships arriving from all over the world would see from afar the power beauty of Marseille. And this is the image they will take with them…

The first stone of ‘La Major’ was laid on September 26, 1852 by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, on the plans of Léon Vaudoyer.

It is considered to be one of the largest cathedrals built in this country since the Middle Ages. Its dimensions, comparable to those of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, were, according to the design of the time, be worthy of the importance of the second largest city and the first port in France, and allow it to welcome 3,000 people.

Léon Vaudoyer died in 1872, so the construction of La Major was taken over by the architect Jacques Henri Espérandieu, who was in charge of the Notre-Dame de la Garde site and was a student and collaborator of the first architect.

Until his death in 1874, he was responsible for the installation of the frameworks and the construction of the domes. In 1874, Henri Antoine Révoil was the new architect of the Cathedral. Mosaic, sculpture, bronze… He was mainly responsible for the interior decoration of the Major.

It was a little over forty years later, on November 30, 1893, that the Cathedral of Sainte-Marie-Majeure was completed. It was handed over th Monsignor Jean-Louis Robert shortly afterwards. It was erected as a minor basilica on January 24, 1896 by Pope Léon XIII, and was consecrated on May 6, 1897.

It was classified as a historical monument in 1906.

The architecture of ‘La Major’

The architecture of the Cathedral was designed to reflect the city’s multicultural reputation.

Indeed, it combines Roman and Oriental styles, and the materials used for the construction are very varied: white marble from Cararre, green stone from Florence, stone from Calissane and from the Gard, onyx from Italy and Tunisia, or mosaics from Venice, the interior and exterior decorations give an original and particular aspect to the religious building.

Built around the 4th century, the church of ‘La Vieille Major’ was the oldest in the city. To build the New Major, the church had to be dut down by two spans! Crushed by the mass of the 19th century Cathedral, it is nevertheless a true masterpiece of Provençal Romanesque art, unfortunately closed to the public.

The domes and railings are decorated with elements borrowed from the Cathedrals of ‘Lucques’ and ‘Sienne’. The novelty of the decoration is mainly due to  the importance of the mosaic cycles.

The facade is decorated with statues of Christ, the Apostles, Saint Peter, Saint Paul and the Saints of Provence as well as a bronze statue representing Monsignor ‘De Belsunce’, bishop of Marseille during the plague of 1720.

La façade est ornée de statues du Christ, des apôtres, de Saint Pierre, Saint Paul et des saints de Provence ainsi qu’une statue en bronze représente Monseigneur de Belsunce, évêque de Marseille lors de la peste de 1720.

The final dimensions of this Cathedral make it one of the largest and most majestic in the world: the total length of the Cathedral is 146m, the main dome is almost 70m high and 18m in diameter.

It is perfectly representative of the importance of the history of Marseille.

‘La Major’ today

Many people pass by the Cathedral every day. Faithful, curious, tourists, locals… It attracts people every day, either to visit it or simply to sit on the magnificent sea view square that surrounds it. The Cathedral is built on a system of Vaults housing  19th century warehouses. Renovated, today it is one of the trendiest places in Marseille, with many cafés, bars and restaurants.

Undeniably, it has managed to become an emblematic place of the Phocaean city.



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