The Magic of Vézelay

After a recent visit to a favourite town, Vézelay in Burgundy, I dug out this unpublished article I wrote in 2002. Here it is with a bit of editing to bring it up-to-date, and a few photos.

The small town of Vézelay is a special gem. Visit here, and allow yourself to be entranced by its beauty, inspired by its spiritual quality, fascinated by its history, and restored by its natural surroundings.

Vézelay owes its existence to the tradition of pilgrimage. Its Basilica of Mary Magdalene has attracted pilgrims from all over Europe for over a thousand years. The main attraction was the relics of Mary, brought to the then monastery in the 11th century from St Maximin in Provence, where she was said to have been buried. Vézelay became one of four major starting points for pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostella in north west Spain (Paris, le Puy and Arles are the others).

Set along a hilltop, the Vézelay skyline offers an enticing perspective as you approach from any of several directions. If you park at the bottom of the hill, the main street winds picturesquely upwards past a selection of shops offering, among other things, provisions, crafts, wines, souvenirs and books, also galleries, bars, and restaurants.

The hill rises fairly gently, but we have often noticed in the past that it did appear to offer a challenge to some of the older and, dare I say it, fatter coach tourists who are clearly used to being dropped at the door! Maybe it was too challenging, as there were no such coaches or tourists on our recent visit.

Eventually you reach the imposing front of the basilica, all that remains of the original monastery. Entering the doorway you realise that this is somewhere special. Remarkable carvings on the 12th century tympanum in the narthex include a magnificent Christ surrounded by apostles and their teachings. The surrounding arch contains the signs of the zodiac, along with scenes of corresponding seasonal activities. (This area was hidden behind scaffolding on our recent visit, but viewable by special tour.)

The pleasingly perfect Romanesque nave culminates in a crescendo of light from the Gothic choir, the two styles perfectly complementing each other.

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Try to go on a sunny day. If you’re there at noon on the summer solstice, sunlight through clerestory (high level) windows forms a line of patches of light directly along the middle of the nave. At the winter solstice, the rays fall directly on the clerestory capitals. Other days they fall somewhere in between. The architects knew their astronomy!

They also knew their symbolism – both explicit in stone carvings and implicit in the building’s structure. Intricate carvings adorn the capitals of many pillars, each telling a story. Most famously, the Mystic Mill depicts Christ as the mill refining the teachings of Moses (grain) into those of the New Testament (flour), being gathered by St Paul. The choir includes eleven round columns and one square, alluding to the story of the Last Supper and the betrayal by Judas.

Underneath the choir, down steps and through a narrow entry, is the simple dark crypt containing Mary’s relics. Not everyone likes it. “It feels creepy down here” muttered one tourist. Others find it spiritual and spend time there in prayer or meditation, inspired by the striking altarpiece and cross. St Thomas a Becket prayed here. My wife is sensitive to the earth energies, said to be strongest in July when her arms and legs tingled madly! This phenomenon may be connected with the springs and water stores that lie within the hill.

To the south and east of the basilica, a grand terrace, site of the original monastery buildings, overlooks gently rolling hills of the Morvan massif.

view to st pere
View to St Père

In the valley below the terrace shines the pure white spire of the church of St Père. You can walk to this pretty village, following the first few kilometres of the Chemin St Jacques, the pilgrims’ way to Santiago de Compostella. Descending gently past vineyards, the route offers fine views of the basilica. St Père’s splendid church contains many echoes of the basilica, its mother church.

North of the basilica is the slope where in 1146 St Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian order of monasteries, preached and inspired the second crusade to the King of France and his nobles. In 1192 Richard the Lionheart made rendezvous here with the French to start the third crusade.

It’s worth seeing Vézelay at night time. From a suitable viewpoint at the bottom of the hill, the lighted basilica is seen apparently floating in the sky. Nearby, its rather plain exterior is transformed into a magical golden cut-out.

Go to Vézelay and you might find it stays with you, calling you back.

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