Bucket lists aren’t necessarily my thing but ever since I started studying art history I have yearned for the opportunity to visit Vézelay and yesterday I managed it. To understand the art, history and politics of the Early Middle Ages in Europe this is the place to visit
Vézelay, a small hill top town, surrounded by thick woodland is dominated by the medieval romanesque church, now dedicated to La Madeleine. The basilica was originally part of a Benedictine / Cluniac monastery built between 1120-1150 The building facade is a of very white stone and mainly built as part of a monastery in the twelfth century. The stunningly high vaults, beautifully balanced round arched windows and the nave arcades are all eye pleasers. But, from an art historical viewpoint the basilica’s most significant contribution is the carving of the tympanum between the narthex and the nave. The tympanum stands above the original west doors but an extension (the narthex) was built to accommodate the influx of pilgrims.
This work, is an early example of the renaissance of stone carving in Europe, launching the proliferation of masons which would dominate the gothic era. Unusually the main compartment contains a carving of Christ sending out the apostles to teach the world his ways. It can be seen as either a prelude to the ascension or representing the Pentecost. The lower compartment, the lintel, shows the sinners of the world as grotesques. Other compartments contain further images of the need for conversion.
St Bernard of Clairvaux took these images as representing ‘western’ thought to preach to King Louis VII to launch the second crusade, whose prime aim was to convert the infidel Turks and Moors as represented in the lintel. The aim of the first crusade was to re-capture Jerusalem for the West but the second and third aspirations were military missions of conversion. Richard I of England and Phillip II of France also met at the Basilica at Vézelay at the start of their third crusade.
The relics of St Mary Magdalene claimed at Vézelay have also been surrounded in controversy. According to legend she travelled from the Holy Land and settled in France becoming venerated in the medieval cult of saints. It was claimed by the monastery that her entire remains pitched up at Vézelay resulting in the huge numbers of pilgrims and significant wealth attained there. This claim has since been proven unreliable, after it turned up at Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume (we saw what purports to be her skull there in 2019). Of the relics all that now remains is a finger (allegedly) sealed in a beautiful gold casket in the crypt. There is jewel set in her stature in the chancel that judging by the marks around it still attract veneration and hopes of salvation.
In addition to all this history Vezelay was also one of the four starting points for the pilgrimages to Santiago de Compestela, in Northern Spain, and there were several brass shells in the pavement to remind us and help us on our way. The town itself is worth visiting as well, although not easy to get to, with numerous very good art galleries, cafés and restaurants. It is about 130 miles south of Paris towards Dijon.