The Basilique Ste-Madeleine (Basilica Church of St. Mary Magdalene) in Vézelay is the largest Romanesque church in France and only 10 yards shorter than the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. As it claimed to guard the relics of St. Mary Magdalen, Vézelay was a major medieval pilgrimage destination. It also saw the launch of the Second and Third Crusades.
History of Vézelay Abbey
Vézelay's history began in 860 AD, when the hilltop site was donated for the purposes of a monastery by Gerard, Count of Roussillon and his wife, Bertha. King Nicholas I in 867 and King Charles the Bald in 868 confirmed the donation.
The new Vézelay abbey was overseen by the great Benedictine abbey at Cluny. Eudes, the monastery's first abbot, offered hospitality to King John VIII, who in 879 consecrated the first church. Norman invasions destroyed the original church, which was then restored under Abbot Geoffrey in the early 11th century.
It was also under Abbot Geoffrey that the abbey at Vézelay was first associated with St. Mary Magdalene. A papal letter dated to 1050 AD shows that the name of the saint was part of the official title of the abbey by that time.
It was around this time that the monks of Vézelay recorded an account according to which the tombs of Sts. Maximinus and Magdalen, at St-Maximin in Provence, had been opened and their bodies removed to Vézelay. Shortly afterwards, a second account relates that only the body of St. Magdalen was taken.
For two centuries the account of the monks of Vézelay was accepted. Papal bulls of Lucius III, Urban III, and Clement III confirmed the statement that they possessed the body of St. Mary Magdalen. Accordingly, the tomb of the saint was visited in the 12th century by a host of illustrious pilgrims. "All France," wrote Hugh of Poitiers, "seems to go to the solemnities of the Magdalen."
The pilgrimage led to the town of Vezelay rising up around the abbey and an increase in the monastery's power and prestige. Contruction on the present basilica began in 1096 under Abbot Artaud to properly honor the sacred relics and welcome the many pilgrims. The Basilica of the Madeleine was dedicated in 1104 by Paschal II, Artaud's successor.
Soon after the founding of the original basilica, major conflict erupted. Abbot Artaud demanded money from the townspeople for the reconstruction of the church and the monks refused to grant political independence to the citizens. This resulted in an insurrection in July 1120 in which the abbey was burnt and the abbot murdered.
Abbot Renaud de Semur, who later became Archbishop of Lyons, raised the basilica from ruins and added an abbot's palace. Work on the basilica's Romanesque nave was underway from 1120 to its dedication in 1132; the narthex was built around 1140-50. The original choir was destroyed by fire in 1165 and rebuilt in the Gothic style.
During the 12th century three more revolts occurred, fanned by the counts of Nevers, who wished to acquire the suzerainty over Vezelay for themselves. The monks were aided by the influence both of the Pope and of King Louis VII, however, and came out victorious in every instance.
Under Abbot Pontius of Montboisier (d. 1161), a former monk of Cluny, Vézelay emancipated itself from Cluniac rule, declared its autonomy as against the claims of the bishops of Autun, and victoriously resisted the encroachments of the counts of Nevers.
Despite these conflicts, Vézelay continued to receive thousands of pilgrims and it hosted a number of important historical events:
The prestige of the abbey began to diminish in 1280 when the Dominicans of St. Maximin in Provence claimed that the true body of St. Mary Magdalene had been discovered in their church. Consequently, the number of pilgrims to Vézelay declined sharply during the 14th and 15th centuries.
In 1538, a papal Bull of Secularization sought by King Francis I and the monks themselves transformed the abbey into a simple collegiate church. Odet de Chatillon, brother of Coligny and Abbot of Vézelay, subsequently became a Calvinist.
During the 16th century Wars of Religion, Vézelay was thoroughly sacked by Huguenots. The Huguenot masters of Vézelay converted the Madeleine into a storehouse and stable and burned the relics.
During the French Revolution the ancient monastery buildings were destroyed and sold at auction. Only the basilica, cloister, and dormitory escaped demolition.
An attempt at restoration of the once-great pilgrimage site was made in 1876 by the future Cardinal Bernadou, Archbishop of Sens. The archbishop determined to restore the pilgrimage of St. Mary Magdalen at Vézelay and so brought a relic of the saint which Martin IV had given to the Chapter of Sens in 1281.
The basilica itself was restored by Viollet le Duc in 1840, the same restorer who fixed up the cathedrals of Laon, Amiens and Paris's Notre-Dame.
What to See at Vézelay Abbey
Dating primarily from the early 12th century, the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene has a Romanesque nave and Gothic choir, both full of light. It is notable for its size: the narthex is an impressive 1,200 sq. km (4,000 sq. ft.) and the length of the nave nearly rivals the Notre-Dame in Paris.
The basilica is also famed for its remarkable Romanesque sculptures that adorn the tympanums (semicircular arch over the door) and capitals (decorated pillar tops). There is a beautiful view of Vézelay's lush valleys and rolling hills from the terrace behind the church.
The west front, a combination of Romanesque, Gothic and 19th-century work, is not nearly as interesting as the treasures inside. Originally built around 1150 in the Romanesque style, it was given a Gothic central gable and south tower in the 13th century. Much of this was heavily restored in 1840 by Viollet-le-Duc, who also added a Romanesque-style tympanum of the Last Judgment to the central portal.
The spacious narthex (porch) contains three richly sculptured portals, dating from about 1115. The great central tympanum depicts the Mission of the Apostles, or the preaching the Good News that Christ commanded at Pentecost. In the center is a large figure of Christ seated within a mandorla (almond-shaped halo). Bolts of lightning (or rays of light) shoot out from Christ's hands and hit the apostles in the heads. St. Peter, recognizable by his keys, sits closest to the right side of Christ.
The inner archivolt around the tympanum and the lintel below are populated with the peoples of the world who will hear the message of Christ. These include, on the lintel, the "Monstrous Race" of foreign lands, such as people with giant ears. This provides a fascinating insight into the medieval worldview and popular legends of the time. The outer archivolt consists of medallions with the Zodiacs and Labors of the Months, symbolizing the timelessness of the message.
The pilgrims' route around the church is indicated by the majestic flowers over the north (left) door. The north tympanum depicts the pilgrims to Emmaus and the Ascension of Christ, while the south tympanum depicts various scenes from the Nativity.
The nave, constructed 1120-32, is one of the oldest parts of the church. Its architecture is exceptionally attractive, with more light than most Romanesque interiors and a visual rhythm created by the enaged columns on the piers and the striped arches of the vault.
The measurements of the church were carefully chosen to create a spectacular effect in the nave twice a year: at midday on the summer solstice, nine pools of sunlight fall upon the exact center of the nave, forming a path of light leading to the altar. At midday on the winter solstice, the pools of light fall on the upper capitals of the north arcade.
The fascinating capitals of the nave were probably sculpted by artists from Cluny. They depict Bible stories, ancient legends and mythological creatures, often nestled within delicately carved foliage.
The vast majority of biblical capitals illustrate the Old Testament, with John the Baptist and the story of Lazarus and Dives being the only New Testament themes represented. But the most famous capital at Vezelay combines the two: known as the Mystic Mill, it shows Moses grinding grain (symbolizing the Old Testament) into flour (New Testament), which Paul solemnly collects in a sack.
The Gothic choir was rebuilt in 1170-1210 (according to Conant) or 1185-1215 (Strafford) and is very similar to the one in the nearby cathedral of Sens. It is an important example of the early adoption of the Gothic style in Burgundy. It has few decorations and no stained glass windows, relying entirely on its graceful lines and use of light for its beauty.
The basilica's Carolingian crypt has reliquaries holding a few small relics of St. Mary Magdalene. These are not the original relics that brought thousands of medieval pilgrims to Vézelay, for those were burned by French Calvinists during the 16th century Wars of Religion. The present relics were given in 1876 by the Archbishop of Sens. The relics were originally a gift from Pope Martin IV to the Diocese of Sens in 1281.
Quick Facts on Vézelay Abbey
|Names:||Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene · Basilique de Vézelay · Basilique Ste-Madeleine · La Madeleine · Vézelay Abbey · Vézelay Basilica|
|Categories:||churches; abbeys; World Heritage Sites; abbey churches|
|Styles:||Romanesque; Gothic; Romanesque Revival|
|Dedication:||St. Mary Magdalene|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||47.466455° N, 3.748784° E|
|Address:||Place de la Basilique|
|Hours:||Jul-Aug: daily 7am-9pm|
Sep-Jun: daily sunrise-sunset
|Lodging:||View hotels near Vézelay Abbey|
- Personal visit (May 28, 2008).
- J.B. Auberger, OFM, and J. Gréal, Vézelay (Paris: Éditions Franciscaines, 2007). Available in the gift shop.
- Patrice Milleron, trans. Armelle Thuillier, The Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalen: Guide and Plan, Architecture, Sculpture, History (Vézelay: Premier Chapitre, 2006). Available in the gift shop.
- Peter Strafford, Romanesque Churches of France: A Traveller's Guide (London: Gilles de Mare, 2005), 93-100.
- Kenneth John Conant, Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture 800-1200 (Yale University Press, 1993), 210-13.
- Vezelay Image Database - University of Pittsburgh
- Vezelay - Art-Roman.net (detailed photos with French captions)
- Adolf Katzenellenbogen,"The Central Tympanum at Vézelay: Its Encyclopedic Meaning and Its Relation to the First Crusade." The Art Bulletin, Vol. 26, No. 3 (September 1944), 141-151.
- La basilique de Vezelay - official site
- Vézelay, Church and Hill - UNESCO World Heritage List
- Basilique Ste-Madeleine, Vézelay - 2007 - Paradoxplace.com
- Véronique Rouchon-Mouilleron, Vézelay: The Great Romanesque Church (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999).
- Francis Salet, La Madeleine de Vézelay: Etude inconographique par Jean Adhémar (Melun, Librairie d'Argences, 1948).
- Francis Salet, Cluny et Vézelay : l'œuvre des sculpteurs (Paris: Société française d'archéologie, 1995).
- Peter Low, "You Who Once Were Far Off: Enlivening Scripture in the Main Portal at Vézelay." The Art Bulletin. 85, no. 3 (2003), 469-90.
- Photos of Vézelay Abbey - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Vézelay Abbey
Below is a location map and aerial view of Vézelay Abbey. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.