Then you have those who hike up there for a brisk morning walk to lord it over the panoramic view and feel regal.
What is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière
The beautiful white Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere, known by locals as the upside-down elephant, sits on the top of Fourvière hill, aka the ‘praying hill’, in Lyon’s 5th district, where the world of Catholics rubs shoulders with vestiges of Ancient Rome.
From its dominant position, looming over the city below with vantage points aplenty, Fourvière has become a symbol of Lyon, attracting over 2 million visitors annually. Designed by Pierre Bossan, Fourvière basilica draws from both Romanesque and Byzantine architecture, two non-Gothic models that were unusual choices at the time. It’s actually one church on top of another.
A spectacular place to visit
The basilica was built between 1872 and 1884 by private funds, like the Sacré Coeur of Montmartre in Paris. These were both triumphalist monuments to thank God for the victory over the socialists in the famous “Communes”, and erected as a symbol to root out the sins of modern France.
Housing stunning mosaics, beautiful stained glass and a crypt of Saint Joseph, Fourvière basilica is a speactacular landmark to visit in Lyon, and the view from the esplanade is mind-blowing. The basilica complex extends to Saint Thomas Chapel, the Virgin Mary, the aforementioned panoramic esplanade, the statue of the archangel Saint Michael, and the gorgeous Rosary Garden.
Dedicated to Mary who saved Lyon from the Black Death
Notre-Dame de Fourvière is dedicated to the Virgin Mary who is said to have saved Lyon from the Black Death that swept through Europe in 1643. Every year on the 8th December, Lyon thanks the Virgin by lighting candles throughout the city and illuminating walls and buildings in a LED extravaganza.
It’s called Fête des Lumières or the Festival of Lights, which, although pious in origin, has become a must-see international event. The gilded Virgin Mary sits upon the bell-tower of Fourvière and has continued to ward off other unwanted from Lyon.
She pushed away a Cholera epidemic in 1832, for example, and prevented the Prussian invasion in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. Busy lady. She’s in the basilica too.
The Basilica’s architectural specificities to look at
The eight lateral chapels in the abutments of the Basilica each show episodes of Mary’s life, containing an altar, an altarpiece and a pediment, decorated by different sculptors.
The six wall mosaics are dedicated to her too, and the six stained-glass windows designed by Georges Decôte present different aspects of the royalty of the Virgin Mary in Heaven. The three cupolas depict Mary united to the three persons of the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
They express her communion with God and her eternal bliss. Oh yes. Controversy inside the basilica. It can wow, it can make you wonder. The in-your-face ornate style of the upper sanctuary hits you first, product of the exaggerated enthusiasm for ecclesiastic embellishment found in 19th century France.
The design of the lower part is however much more simple. There’s room for peace, for calm contemplation, provided you’ve shrugged off the crowds. The controversial iconographic element in the basilica is the collection of mosaics known as the “sins” or “heresies”, to be found in the upper sanctuary.
There are 11 of them, 9 of which symbolise the historic heresies. The symbolic triumph of good over evil is evoked in the Basilica by the statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking these heresies, doctrines of Christian origin contrary to the Catholic faith and condemned by the Church.
Bossan wants to show Mary’s strength and triumph in fighting the heresy. At her feet, he places the heresies, each one featured by a different animal. The controversy began when the sin ‘Lutherism’ was evoked. But it was soon to be cleared up when Philippe Barbarin made an apology to the Protestant members at an inter-religious event in 2005. Erm, sorry about that.
The Rosary Garden
You can find the Rosary gardens right under the Basilica. They were designed in Bossan’s plan to isolate this place of prayer from all the madness of the city. At the bottom of the gardens, you can find the Maison de Lorette, where Pauline Jaricot lived. It’s well worth a visit. She was a great figure of the Propagation of Faith and the founder of the Universal Living Rosary Association in the 19th century.
Whatever you choose to do, these gardens offer a moment of pure escapism as you wind your way between Vieux Lyon to the Basilica.
Tips to visit the Fourviere Basilica
Sip a glass of crisp white wine in the Restaurant de Fourvière. Why not have some foie gras too to fully sup up the panoramic view?
The funicular railway is a must to get up to Fourvière. One word? Fun.
If you fancy your own upside-down elephant, there are two souvenir shops just waiting for your custom.
Discover the Byzantine and Romanesque architecture of the church