Shaped like a teardrop, the hilltop town of Vézelay has received hordes of visitors for nearly a thousand years. Even today, backpack-laden pilgrims (often carrying a scallop shell), package tourists and curious visitors crawl the steep cobbled spine of Vézelay to enjoy the UNESCO Heritage-listed architectural wonder of Saint Mary Magdalene Basilica (or Vézelay Benedictine Abbey). As it has for centuries, it continues to act as one of four traditional starting points for the pilgrimage along the Way of St James to Santiago de Compostela– a long distance hike more popular than ever today (though typically now starting in the Pyrenees). It also acted as the launch point for the Second and Third Crusades in the twelfth century.
A marketing genius abbot bought the bones and remains of Mary Magdalene (the relics were confirmed by the Pope) from Provence and placed them in the crypt of the church. In those days, nothing beat a good set of bones to help build a church’s reputation. As a pilgrim saint of prisoners and captives, a supplier of miracles and the first person to see Jesus after His resurrection, Mary is one of the Christianity’s most significant women, and a premium relic for any church. The wily abbot had freed folks bring their chains to the abbey and symbolically melted them down and built a wrought-iron fence around Mary’s remains.
Pilgrims poured into Vézelay bringing the town considerable prestige and wealth, attracting considerable religious and royal patronage. The abbot commissioned a new extensive church suitable for such worthy relics but nearly bankrupted the town, the uprising citizens killing the abbot in protest and burning the church to the ground at the hefty taxes sought to build the expanded church. A new church was built to replace the fallen original and that same church is the basis of the Basilica today. Despite its original scale, a narthex (a kind of covered porch) was added to the abbey to add standing room for the increasing pilgrim population.
The Basilica is a stunning Romanesque building on a huge scale. With towering columns, elegant rounded archways and tiny windows but virtually no internal decoration, the altar captures light radiating off the almond-coloured stone giving a celestial aura to the centrepiece of worship. Sound during a Vespers service (highly recommended) echoes with harmonious almost heaven-sent acoustics. A highlight are the detailed carved tympanums (top photo), the central one featuring Jesus’ outstretched arms welcoming the people of the world – people of all creeds and races and backgrounds – Turks, Jews, Arabs and Ethiopians are joined with grotesque looking figures with big ears, dog-like faces or small statures.
Below the church is the austere, chilly but serene crypt housing the valued relic –ironically a replacement for the original burnt by Huguenots in the sixteenth century.
The alignment and massive scale of the abbey were carefully chosen to create a spectacular astronomical effect on the summer solstice. Nine beams of sunlight illuminate the centre of the nave forming an uplifting angelic path of light to the altar.
A scenic walk (Promenade des Fosses) around the town’s medieval ramparts helps escape the maddening crowds and highlights a panoramic vista of sunflowers, vineyards and verdant fields of grazing sheep.
The Basilica has survived the centuries of ravaging by lightning, bad weather, wars and religious attack and is, as described by the tourist office, an extraordinary book of stone and light. The efforts of the savvy abbot to relocate Mary Magdalene’s bones to the tiny hilltop Burgundian town has proven a god-send (pardon the pun) for Vézelay as it continues to attract visitors to explore the elegant and inspiring Basilica and the surrounding narrow lanes and streets. And stay overnight, the town has a wonderful quiet feel when the buses depart and the Basilica is a glorious sight under lights.