It was built between 1852 and 1893, under the order of Napoléon 3rd, as Marseille was its favorite town. Under the second Empire, the Phocean city was very était devenue très thriving, welcoming and promising. It was the second town and the first port in France. The town centre became the Emperor’s construction area (Rue de la République, Port de la Joliette, Palais de la Bourse, Palais Longchamp, Palais du Pharo).
Napoléon 3rd wanted this Cathedral to be grandiose. It aimed at representing an opening on the world and external influences. The chosen location was where the Vieille Major (old major) already was. But it had to be amputated as room was needed for the new ones. It was yet a 12th century beautiful Romanesque building built on a Paleo-Christian church (of the first Christians). During the latest work, between 2000 and 2008, 5th century magnificent mosaics and vestiges of walls were found. From the ancient church, there are only a span and the apse left (external coupole). The church is restored but cannot be visited.
The works on the new Major lasted for 40 years and were decided by Monsignor Eugène de Mazenod ; Napoléon 3rd laid the first stone which was consecrated by Monsignor Léon XIII. Built in the Byzantine style, it also has Romanesque and Gothic elements. The multiple cupolas and domes are a reference to Orien give the Cathedral an imposing look.
3 architects succeeded one another to build it (Léon Vaudoyer, Henri-Jacques Espérandieu, Henri-Antoine Révoil).
At first sight, a big load at the back of the building is surprising, it echoes the medieval constructions. Then there are green stones (from Florence) alternating with white stone (from Calissane). Its length is impressive (142m). Under the cupola, its maximum height is 70m. To enter you go through a portico topped by two surprising steeples narrow and high (60m.). On the façade, we can see the Christ and the apostles ; inside we can see the coronation of the Virgin made in Byzantine mosaics.
The internal part impresses by its dimensions (which are close of the dimensions of Saint Pierre de Rome). On the walls, white marble from Carrare and porphyry (dark red volcanic stone cut of white crystals) are alternating. Your eye will be caught by the countless Provençal flags exposed. The visitor is then attracted by the brightness coming from the choir. Above the central part of the transept, the big cupola is topped by 4 smaller ones, lightened by a lot of geminated windows and a rose which allow the light to flow freely in the building. This kind of windows can be found everywhere in this huge cathedral (can hold up to 3000 people). If you have the chance to listen to a concert in this cathedral, you will be overwhelmed and “bewitched” by the extraordinary sound of the organ and the acoustics.
The ambulatory around the choir is flanked with six absidioles (semi-circle cupolas towards the outside). The polychrome marble paving is remarkable. In the 3rd transept, the statue of « Véronique essuyant la face de Jésus tombé à terre » (“Veronica wipes the Face of Jesus”, admirable work by Auguste Carli) is to be seen.
In the crypt, you can see the tombs of the Cardinal de Mazenod and of Monsignor de Belsunce (who tirelessly comforted the sick during the 1720 plague/ his statue decorates the parvis of the cathedral).
And if you’re fancy it, you can even get married in the Major or your children or grand-children can celebrate their communion.
Each year, feast of Mary’s Assumption, the procession of the Madonna takes place (the Golden Virgin gets out of the Major to go in the narrow streets of the close district of the Panier).
Guided tours of the Cathedral are organized on demand.
This church and its rich architecture is highly exposed to the passers-by as all the surrounding area has been restructured (pole Euroméditerranée). The vaults under the Cathedral have been transformed in various attractive shops. Many monuments around are to be visited to (Tour Saint Jean, its embankment, the Tour du Fanal, the MuCEM, the Villa Méditerranée, the Foundation Regards de Provence, the Panier …). Moreover, the major is magnificently illuminated at night, like many monuments of the town centre. On the esplanade, the view on the sea and the sea wall is also to be seen.
Parts of the underground highway (from the Prado Carénage to the autoroute du Littoral), highlighted this imposing building eliminating most of the surface traffic.
The site is easily accessible by bus, tramway or underground. A carpark is also available (750 cars). This touristic area is opened on Sundays.
And if you enjoy travelling, you can take one of the big cruise ship on the deck nearby.