Orchard Dump
Webmatters : The Basilica de ND de Brebières, at Albert

Notre Dame de Brebières


Albert is a major town about thirty kilometres to the north-east of Amiens. It can be considered the southern gateway to the British battlefields of the Somme (Bapaume is at the northern end of the axis road D 929).

Decimal50.003632.64803 Map
The entrance to the museum

The entrance to the museum

There is a good museum located just to the right of the basilica.


The town was briefly held by the Germans from the 29th August until the 14th September 1914. Once the line had stabilised the French front line ran through La Boisselle, where the two sides conducted mining operations against each other in the area known, in English, as The Glory Hole.

In August 1915 the British took over the front and the town became a massive logistics base for the British Army until the end of the war — with the exception of the German occupation from 2nd March to the 26th August 1918.

The Basilica

Legend recounts that a shepherd who was so fed up with one of his sheep gambolling across the fields away from the flock that he thumped his crook against the ground in exasperation. As he did so, he heard a voice bemoaning the fact that he had ‘hurt her’.

Having voices in your head was perfectly acceptable in those days, especially when they told you to start digging holes. This he did and eventually found an effigy of the Madonna which soon became known as the ewe’s Madonna (the French word brebis means a ewe).

At the place in question an oratoire was soon constructed and soon became a place of pilgrimage for couples. By the Middle Ages Notre-Dame de Brebières had her own saints day of the 8th September but that didn’t stop a constant flow of pilgrims throughout the rest of the year.

Notre dame de la brebière

Notre-Dame de Brebières

The oratoire was replaced by a church in the 18th century but it didn’t take too long before even that became to small to hold the numbers of the faithful. In 1882 a new curé arrived in Albert. Anicet Godin was a native of Dompierre sur Authie, a farming village, on the northern border of the Somme. Having arrived in what was, a now, booming industrial town (Albert would become an early site for aeronautical engineering amongst other things) he decided that the current church wasn’t big enough and developed plans for a basilica.

Plans that required about four million francs !

The project was awarded to a local architect from Amiens, Edmond Duthoit, a disciple of Viollet le Duc (famous for his work on ND de Paris and the Château de Pierrefonds — used as Camelot in the BBC series Merlin !).

Two styles were the thing at the time, neo-gothic and neo-byzantine, and Duthoit had not only voyaged quite extensively but also studied religious art in Italy, Syria and northern Africa. His design would provide a melange of styles that would coexist in perfect harmony within the basilica.

Part of the roof of the nave

The coffered ceiling

The interior of Albert's basilica

Looking down the nave

The result was certainly that and his own notes talk about influences from churches and mosques from around the Mediterranean. The construction is of brick and white stone but don’t be put off by the humble exterior.

The apse and altar

Memorial plaque to Anicet Godin

Memorial plaque at Dompierre sur Authie

The seventy-six metre bell tower takes the form of a minaret and, once inside, the arhitectural influences become apparent. The apse (rounded part behind the altar) is a copy of that of Monreale cathedral in Sicily. Rather than a vaulted ceiling you will note that its coffered (which means that it is indented with the surrounding beams showing).

Constructed between 1884 and 1895, Pope Leo XIII gave it the title of minor-basilica and declared it the Lourdes of the North.

The only four major basilicas are all in Rome. The term basilica is often used in conjunction with important pilgrimage churches. It is not necessary for them to be architectural basilicas.

A new legend is born

The basilica at Albert

The bell tower

The golden madonna on the basilica of Albert

The golden Madonna

Whilst the interior is magnificent the basilica is truly noted for one thing : the six metre, golden statue of the Madonna and child surmounting the tower. On a sunny day it can be seen glinting on the horizon for a good distance (hills allowing !).

When war broke out in 1914 the town soon found itself at the front and subjected to constant bombardments. As the tower represented an excellent observation point it was a frequent target and on 15th January 1915 it received a direct hit which dislodged the statue causing her to lean over. Between the wind and further shelling the statue began to lean ever more dangerously and threatened to topple over. French soldiers succeeded however in wiring her into place — almost horizontal to the ground.

Despite being subjected to further bombardments and the almost complete destruction of the basilica itself, the tower remained standing with the leaning Madonna hanging on. An imagine that travelled around the world.

This seeming miracle gave rise to the idea that if she fell the war would come to an end, and according to the version you listened to, the loser would be the side that did so, or was it the victor ?

The Germans took the town in their great Operation Michael in March 1918 and the tower now became an advantage point for them, and thus, a target for the British artillery. Now I have read different versions as to how the statue finally fell. In some she was hit by a British shell (the victors) and in another that the Germans deliberately took her down (on 16th April 1918) and made off with her (the losers).

Either way the legend was correct because that offensive would mark the death throes of German efforts and the war would end that year.

Details on the wall

The apostles

The town and basilica were left in ruins by the war but there was great desire to recreate the basilica. The town turned to Louis Duthoit, the son of Edmond and a celebrated architect in his own right (if you are in Amiens have a look at the Hôtel Bouctot-Vagniez, with the reminder that the word means a large house as well as hotel, you wont find a room at an Hôtel de Ville).

The rest of Louis’ life was dedicated to the exact recreation of his father’s work, calling on the original builders to come together again for the task.

The golden statue had been created by the Amienois Albert Roze and he recreated his original as well as commemorative medallions within the church and the altar piece statues.