On a trip to Marseille, you are bound to spot this uniquely decorated cathedral. Make the next step and visit the Cathedral of the Major!
The Cathedral of the Major (Cathédrale de la Major) sits at the Place de la Major, a famous square located in Marseille’s Joliette district. When you visit the Cathedral of the Major in Marseille, you can also enjoy an enchanting view of the city’s docks and Old Port as well as the MuCEM museum.
Three architects were involved in the Major’s making, over a span of more than forty years. What makes this cathedral stand out from all the rest is its unusual striped exterior, mainly made of white marble and green porphyry. Hence, locals who often see this cathedral have nicknamed it the “pajama building”.
This national, religious monument is impressive not only by its composite beauty, but also by its imposing dimensions. The Marseille Cathedral– a.k.a. Cathedral of Saint Mary Major (Sainte-Marie-Majeure)– is a whopping 142 meters wide and its tallest point is almost 70 meters! This vastness enables it to welcome up to 3,000 people at a time.
The history of Cathedral of the Major
At this site, it is actually possible to see two Majors, the Old (Vieille Major) and the New (Nouvelle Major).
Marseille Cathedral: Old Major
The Old Cathedral of the Major started out as a modest church and was rebuilt various times over the centuries. It was supposed to be demolished when the New Major was to be built.
Thanks to national protests, it still faithfully stands today– at least partially. Only the choir and one part of the nave were saved.
Marseille Cathedral: New Major
The New Cathedral of the Major, much more majestic than the Old Major, truly is a national treasure. Building an awe-inspiring cathedral was, according to national leaders at that time (nineteenth century), necessary to reinforce the city’s image.
Indeed, as France’s biggest and most important port, Marseille had been exponentially gaining in economic power.
Hence, Napoleon III symbolically laid the cathedral’s first stone block in 1852. The architect behind this incredible structure, Léon Vaudoyer, designed the Cathedral of the Major to be a sort of merger or portal between the East and the West.
This explains the cathedral’s mystical mix of Roman, Gothic, and Byzantine styles with Oriental inspiration. In regards to shape, the Major forms a Latin cross.
Vaudoyer’s death in 1872 placed the cathedral’s fate into Jacques Henri Esperandieu’s hands (author of Marseille’s Bonne Mère basilica), before he too passed away only two years later. A third architect, Henri Antoine Révoil, took over the project until the cathedral’s completion in 1893.
Pope Leo XIII then officially consecrated the Major as a minor basilica in 1896.
What to see and do at the Marseille Cathedral?
There surely are a lot of things to see when you visit the Major Marseille Cathedral! In addition to the beautiful mosaics and decorations that can be found everywhere you look, here are a few other things you may want to look out for.
Main organ instrument
Contrary to traditional organs with vertical pipes, the Marseille Cathedral’s organ boasts horizontal pipes, an interesting sight for sure as “en chamade” organs are rather rare.
The cathedral houses several side chapels, one of them being the Chapel of the Virgin. This side chapel bears Saint Eugene de Mazenod‘s remains, one of Marseille’s former bishops.
As mentioned previously, this cathedral is built of marble and porphyry. It is also lavishly adorned and built with a number of other materials such as Tunisian Onyx and green stone from Florence.
Towers and statues
The towers located at the front of the cathedral shelter seven beautiful statues, including statues of the Christ, a couple of His apostles, and various Saints.
Inside the cathedral there are many other statues of Saints as well.
Vaults (Voûtes de la Major or Voûtes Marseillaises)
Renovated only a few years ago, these vaults are one of the best places to walk around in Marseille. Visitors can shop (or window shop) for clothing, eat gelato, have a drink, or savor a delicious meal.
The vaults host various boutiques and a number of restaurants catering to different budgets and cravings. They are located just outside the cathedral, forming a kind of wall on the sea-facing side.
How to visit the Cathedral of the Major in Marseille?
The cathedral and its magnificent relics don’t need to be visited in any specific order. It’s possible to enter and exit the Saint Mary Major as much as one’s heart desires, at least during official public opening hours.
In any case, almost everyone starts with the cathedral’s gigantic entrance. After entering, it’s possible to see three huge naves that are topped with intricately-decorated domes. Each nave boasts an impressive amount of statues, altars, columns, choir stalls, and much more.
It is recommended to go through each nave one by one rather than zig-zagging between them at the risk of missing important details.
Some visitors choose to only visit the exteriors, but you can only really grasp the cathedral’s size and magnificence by going inside.
How to get to Marseille’s Cathedral of the Major?
- By bus
Bus line number 49 will take you to La Major. Line 82 also stops at La Major, albeit a little farther away from the Cathedral than line 49.
- By car
If you don’t find any spots in Marseille’s streets, there are two underground parkings that are less than 300 meters away from the monument. Take your pick between the Vieux-Port Fort Saint Jean parking or the Indigo parking lot. If possible, try to book parking in Marseille in advance, especially during the summer it will make it easier for you find a spot.
- By metro
Marseille’s metro line number two (M2) stops at the Joliette station, which is under ten minutes away by foot.
- By tramway
Just as with the metro, it’s possible to stop at the Joliette station, with lines two (T2) or three (T3). Again, this route will involve a little bit of walking.
- By foot
If you’re already near the Old Port, the cathedral’s gigantic dimensions won’t make it hard to find. Just spot the pajama domes and head forward!
Cathedral of the Major in Marseille: ticket rates and opening hours
How much does it cost to visit the Cathedral of the Major in Marseille? What are the opening hours of the Marseille Cathedral?
Marseille Cathedral ticket price
This is a free Marseille visit!
Saint Mary Cathedral opening hours
The Cathedral of la Major is open from 10:00 AM to 07:00 PM every day except for Mondays.
As it is the case with many touristic areas, Saturdays and Sundays are when the cathedral is the most crowded.
If you wish to visit this monument when it’s less congested, aim for a Wednesday or Thursday visit.
Stick around after sundown for an illuminated night view of the cathedral.
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