Marseille’s Abbey of Saint-Victor: Art and History

From Quarry to Basilica: Uncover the intriguing history of the Abbey's location, from quarry to sacred basilica.

The Abbey of Saint-Victor is widely regarded as one of Marseille’s “Must See” attractions. The Basilica and its crypts, which provide stunning views of the ‘Vieux-Port’ (Old Port), are excellent places to learn about the religious history of the city. The tower of the monastery has served as a symbol of Marseille for centuries.

Explore this ancient edifice, a treasure of Early Christian art at the center of Marseille’s history, and take in its breathtaking vistas. Crypts, chapels, and sarcophagi abound, making it a fascinating destination for history and culture lovers.

Proculus, bishop of Marseille (380-430), enthusiastically supported the Abbey’s founding by John Cassian in the fifth century. Cassian, a religious hermit known as an anchorite, is credited for bringing the monastic way of life to Marseille. It is widely held that the monastery houses the relics of Saint-Victor, the 4th-century saint widely recognized as the patron saint of Marseille.

On the feast of Candlemas, thousands of people make the journey to Saint-Victor. On the morning of February 2nd, a religious procession leaves the Vieux-Port and travels along ‘rue Sainte’ (Saint Street) to the Abbey of Saint-Victor.

Marseille's Abbey of Saint-Victor
Marseille’s Abbey of Saint-Victor

The archbishop blesses the city and sings mass before the congregation gets gifted with a green-mantled version of the Black Virgin, who is normally preserved in the crypts. Next, he visits the Four des Navettes (an old bakery with an oven from the 18th century) to give a blessing over the traditional Marseille treat, a little cookie in the shape of a boat.

The Four des Navettes bakery, located right next to the Abbey, is well-known for its orange blossom-flavored boat-shaped cookies. Four des Navettes is the oldest bakery in Marseille, and the formula for its delicious sweets has been kept secret ever since it was created in 1781. Get a box and dip them in some strong coffee for a tasty treat.

History of The Abbey of Saint-Victor

The area around the Abbey used to be a quarry, and the stones that were taken there were utilized in building the Ancient Port.

Early on, a necropolis was hidden within the quarry, which was situated beyond the city limits. The city of Marseille was situated on the Vieux-Port’s north bank, with the south bank being deserted. It was considered a civic disgrace in antiquity to bury the dead within city limits. As a result, other cemeteries, including Saint-Victor, were established on the outskirts of the city.

The quarry is where the body of Christian martyr Victor was buried. One Roman soldier named Victor would not bow down to idols. He was drawn and quartered, millstoned to death, and dumped in the Vieux-Port as part of the persecution.

Abbey of Saint-Victor
Abbey of Saint-Victor

Early on, a pilgrimage was established around Victor’s grave, and many Marignanese wanted to be buried next to his remains because they saw him as a mediator who might help them achieve forgiveness more quickly.

A basilica formed itself in the area by the fifth century. Mistakenly known today as “the crypts of Saint-Victor,” the church and quarry are home to priceless artifacts.

Several of the sarcophagi at Saint-Victor have never been opened, and you have access to all of them. They are an invaluable record of Christian art from the fourth and fifth centuries.

Abbot Isarn began construction on the church’s tower and western wing in the 11th century. The Basilica’s prominence led to its eventual adoption as a signature feature of the Marseille skyline.

The Abbey was completely reconstructed from the late 12th to the early 13th century using Roman building practices and expanding upon a modest basilica from the 5th century. After serving as Abbot of Saint-Victor, Pope Urban V fortified the whole monastery so that it might be used in the defense of the port.

The Abbey was left in disrepair after the French Revolution, although it was later renovated in the nineteenth century. Along with Paris’s Louvre and the Museum of “Arles antique,” it is a crowning achievement in the decipherment of Early Christian art on sarcophagi.

Abbey of Saint-Victor in Marseille
Abbey of Saint-Victor in Marseille

Architecture of The Abbey of Saint-Victor

A church built there in the 5th century was converted into a crypt during the Romanesque era in the 11th century. The crypt of the fortified structure is home to early Christian sarcophagi. You cannot remain ignorant of this architectural style and its related myths, symbols, and beliefs.

Two different kinds of art are employed in the construction of the building. Gothic art in the aisles, transept, and choir, and Romanesque art in the central nave with shattered barrel arches. The spot is well worth the extra effort required to get there due to the breathtaking view it provides of the harbor.

How can one resist being swept up in the magic of this ancient site? St. Victor Abbey is significant to several historical and cultural practices. Particularly noteworthy is the Candlemas parade, which is traditionally accompanied by the blessing of Navettes from a local bakery.

Location and accessibility of The Abbey of Saint-Victor

Located on rue de l’Abbaye, west of the Old Port (Vieux Port), is Abbey St. Victor. The Route 82 and 83 bus stops are conveniently located on rue Robert. The Abbey is conveniently served by Bus Route 60. Some tourists choose multi-stop tours that include transportation so they can see the Abbey and other attractions in one day.

Abbey of Saint-Victor in Marseille, France
Abbey of Saint-Victor in Marseille, France


The Abbaye Saint Victor is located south of the Old Port and overlooks the water. Almost continuously since 415, the Abbey has occupied the same location. John Cassian, a monk, is said to have established the monastery. Legend has it that St. Victor’s remains or remnants of an old Greek quarry can be found in the Abbey’s crypt.

If you find yourself in Marseille, one of the sights you really must see is Saint-Victor Abbey. St. Victor Abbey is a remarkable religious, cultural, and symbolic structure, as well as a historical relic of the city of Marseille. Indeed, it is a gem of the early Christian era and Romanesque architecture, and it was included in the registry of historical monuments in 1840. In addition to being a privileged place of worship, it is also one of the most stunning cathedrals in all of Marseille.

Related Articles

Back to top button