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The Abbey Church of Vézelay

(Basilique Ste-Madeleine)

West Burgundy





Links to Saulieu Basilique St-Andoche     Autun Cathédral St-Lazare      Eglise St-Lazare (Avallon)


Back to Paradoxplace Burgundy & Champagne Pages



This page resulted from our original visit to this beautiful place in 2004.  We returned in 2007 armed with new cameras and three years of learning more about the detail of Romanesque churches ....


Link to new Vézelay pages

Link to more tympanum and narthex photos

Link to more photos of Vézelay's medieval narrative capitals



The existence of mineral water springs at the foot of the Vézelay hill, gave rise to settled pre-Celtic communities from at least 900BC.  In Roman times the lands formed the estate of Vercellus (hence Vézelay), then fell into the hands of the Carolingian Emperors before they were taken over in the 800s by Count Girart de Roussillon.  The two convents he established did not survive long in an age of regular Saracen raids (the Saracens or Arabs turned up in some very northerly places in those early Muslim days), but a monastery built in a better defensive position at the top of the hill had better fortune until it too was looted and burned down in the early 900s - this time by the Normans, the other lot of wandering marauders who appear all over the place around these times.



Sometime during this period, legend has it, a monk named Baudillon obtained some relics (bones) of Mary Magdalene from Saint Maximin la Ste Baume and brought them to the monastery.  In addition to being "the female apostle", the saint was believed to specifically have the power to free captives, and numerous prisoners who had been set free after suitable prayers  brought their chains to Vézelay as a votive offering.


But it took the medieval marketing genius of newly elected Abbot Geoffroy in 1037 to order that the ironwork be melted down and refashioned into wrought iron railings around the Mary Magdelen altar in an upgraded pilgrim friendly space.

Basilique Ste-Madeleine, Vezelay

Vezelay Village, Burgundy


This rebranding act, including a papal letter dated 27 April 1058 confirming the genuineness of the relics,  sparked a vast influx of pilgrims (many on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain to the resting place of those other apostolic bones - those of Saint James (Iago) plus more monks plus more money plus more pilgrims (and ex cons) etc etc - a cracking virtuous circle.  By 1096 (the year after the first crusade was launched) it was necessary to build a new Basilica to accommodate everybody. 


The new church was dedicated on 21 April 1104, whereupon the citizenry revolted and killed the abbot because of the high taxes they had been forced to pay for the church.  By the 1120s they were rebuilding the nave which had burned down (roasting 1,200 people), but still the pilgrims and ex-prisoners flocked in.  A narthex (very large enclosed portico) was inaugurated by Pope Innocent II in 1132 to help lodge the pilgrim throng.  


Vézelay now had over 800 monks (by comparison with a few dozen in most monasteries) and was a sort of northern European medieval pilgrims' version of British Rail's Clapham Junction.  So it was no surprise that none other than the Burgundian Cistercian Abbot Saint Bernard (the chief European establishment evangelistic mover and shaker of the day) chose the Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene to preach (i.e. launch) the ill fated Second Crusade in 1147.  Well actually he chose a nearby open space as there were over 100,000 people there, so they said.


Just under 20 years later, on Whit-Sunday (Pentecoste) 12 June 1166, Thomas Becket preached a sermon at Vézelay announcing the excommunication of the main followers of his English King, Henry II, and threatening the King with the same medicine.  Thomas, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had been in exile at the nearby Cistercian abbey of Pontigny, but Vézelay had a better profile for this sort of statement.  Henry of course got his own back (medieval kings mostly did) by facilitating Thomas' murder in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. 


In 1190 Kings Richard I (French speaking English - son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine) and Philip II (French speaking French) spent the months of April, May and June in Vézelay assembling their forces before setting off to the middle east via Barletta on Crusade Number 3


In the middle of all of this, the nave had burned down again in 1165.  It was rebuilt in its present form with stone vaulted roof later in the eleven hundreds, using translucent local white and coloured limestone, and this is the nave that stands today as one of the most beautiful examples of Romanesque architecture.....



Ste-Madeleine Vezelay - the Great Romanesque Nave



After the heady days of the 1100s, things kind of fell apart under a series of incompetent abbots, a decline accelerated when the fully intact body of Mary Magdelene (no missing bones) was "discovered" back at Saint-Maximin by none less than King Charles of Anjou (1226 - 1285), and the Dominican friars there set to with gusto to compile a (completely fictional) account of miracles that these relics had wrought.  So well was this promulgated that Vézelay, built up on what was now perceived as a fraudulent claim,  disappeared from the pilgrim maps.


The decline must have had more to do with bad marketing skills though, because a feature of medieval times was that there were often several bodies or "identical" body parts of a single saint to be found in different shrines.  Thus Mary's body was also in Senigallia (near Urbino), Rome (in the church of Saint John Lateran), and further afield in the church of Saint Lazarus (her brother) in Constantinople.  Mary's skulls, several arms, fingers and other body parts were scattered around several other churches.


Vezelay - Novices Praying

Vezelay - Basilique Ste-Madeleine Facade


Back with Vézelay, incompetent abbots were succeeded by the worse scourge of commendatory abbots, political appointees who were free to siphon off abbey incomes into their own pockets.  By 1537 there were only 15 monks left in the great monastery and it was downgraded into a (little) college of canons. 


During France's wars of religion (1562 - 1598), Vézelay became a refuge for Huguenots (= Protestants / Calvinists) who showed their gratitude by torching the now discredited "Magdelene Relics".  They also invented a grizzly new bowling game - local canons were buried up to the neck, and their heads used for jacks aimed at with the heads of other monks the Huguenots had decapitated.


Unlike Cluny, Vézelay's Abbey church (except the west facade) escaped the wreckers after the French Revolution at the end of the 1700s, though the monastery buildings all disappeared, with the exception of the chapter house and adjacent rooms (the little bit of cloister that is now there is a later restorers invention).  In 1834 Prosper Mérimée, in his part time role as the French national inspector of historical monuments, warned that that the church was about to collapse, and the young architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was appointed to supervise a massive and successful restoration between 1840 and 1861 (which included the flying buttresses that you see supporting the nave today).  Luckily this was before le-Duc's ego guided him to restore other churches as he thought they should have been built rather than were (see for example the spire on Notre Dame de Paris).  In addition the Archbishop of Sens kindly gave the restored basilica another Mary Magdalene relic, an umteenth finger.


Today's carers of the beautiful Basilique are the Fraternité Monastique de Jérusalem.


Vezelay - Basilique Ste-Madeleine Facade

Vezelay - South Aisle Doorway Tympanum


The undistinguished 1800s external door (the original got monstered in the French Revolution)



Entry to the south aisle from the narthex


Basilique Ste-Madeleine, Vezelay, Main Portal and Tympanum



Basilique Ste-Madeleine, Vézelay - The main portal (inside the narthex) (1100s)


Link to more photos of the Tympanums and Portal sculptures in the Narthex


Link to the Last Judgement tympanum of the Cathédrale St-Lazare, Autun, whose sculptor, Gislebertus, came from Vézelay



Vezelay - Midsummer photo



Vezelay, Summer Solstice Photo, Basilique Ste-Madaleine



These two photos can be bought at the bookstall inside the narthex, and show what the chair-less, open-doored basilica looks like at midday on the day of the Summer Solstice (June 21) (if the sun is shining).  The pools of sunlight lead up the centre of the nave to the area where the relics of Mary Magdalene were.  At midday on the day of the Winter Solstice (December 22) the pools of light fall on the column capitals on the north side of the nave.


Vezelay Cloister

Vezelay Nun

The vaulted Chapter House (below) is in good shape.  The corridor outside is called "the cloister" though it's an invention of the late 1800s restorer Viollet-le-Duc and not part of the long gone monastic cloister structure on the south side of the church. 

Vezelay Chapter House

Vezelay Chapter House


Link to 2007 Vézelay pages

Link to more tympanum photos

Link to more photos of Vézelay's Narrative Capitals




Buy from Amazon USA

Buy from Amazon UK




Buy from Amazon USA

 Buy from Amazon UK 



Vézelay (like Autun) is famous for its tympanum and portal reliefs and narrative capitals, and this splendid coffee table book by Veronique Mouilleron with photos by Daniel Faure not only reproduces these with superb close up photos, but does so using narrative formats where is easy to understand the meaning and context of the various components of the main tympanum and narthex, and the capitals.



Sadly this wonderful photographic and descriptive tour de force, also down to Mouilleron and Faure,  is presently (mid 2007) only available second hand - but there do seem to be plenty around.   The cloister on the cover is from Lérida in Spanish Catalonia.


Link to Paradoxplace Cloister Pages



 Buy from Amazon USA

Buy from Amazon UK



Limited edition hard cover coffee table book - the most comprehensive images (including all the Zodiac archivolt) and script - in French with photos in black and white.


Roads to Santiago (Saint Jaques) de Compostela




Vézelay was an assembly point for pilgrims who then followed the Via Lemovicensis (coloured yellow on the map below) through to the Camino Frances where the various roads, converged and became a single route over the mountains to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and the relics of Saint James / Saint Jaques / Sant Iago.  Then and today, the scallop shell is the badge of these pilgrims, and is also to be found in signs and buildings on the way.  On arrival at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, pilgrims present their Pilgrim Passports, duly stamped at each of their halts along the way, at the Cathedral's Pilgrim Office, and apply for the Compostela , the traditional certificate in Latin confirming their completion of the pilgrimage.   Link to Camino pages.



Camino and French Pilgrims' Roads


Link to a more detailed map of the medieval pilgrimage roads of France

Maps of the Spanish pilgrimage roads to Santiago de Compostela



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