Vézelay is prodigious, enclosed in a sort of Switzerland of its own on a mountain that dominates the others, visible for miles around in a most thrilling harmony of landscape.
– Marcel Proust, Letters to Georges de Lauris, 11 September 1903
I can’t believe my eyes when I see the road sign “Vézelay”, as we leave the famous Grottes d’Arcy-sur-Cure. I always thought that Vézelay – the town that I know through 19th century literature – was located somewhere between Orléans and Tours. But no, Vézelay lies in northern Burgundy. I have to pull hard on the mental switch to let go of my wrong geographical idea of this famous medieval town.
As often described by famous writers, the town of Vézelay is perched on top of a hill, behind an oval rampart of ravines and gorges. It is surrounded by a conglomerate of ancient masonry, and a series of military defenses that vouch for its prestigious past.
The Vézelay Abbey, also called “Abbey of Saint Mary Magdalene of Vézelay”, is probably one of the best known monuments in this medieval town. In fact, this formerly Benedictine and Cluniac monastery ranks as one of the most celebrated in Europe.
Founded on top of a late Roman villa, it was in this very abbey where Saint Bernard preached in favor of a Second Crusade. This inspired Louis-le-Jeune to take arms in 1146. King Philippe-Auguste of France and King Richard the Lionheart of England also started their Crusades in the Vézelay Abbey. And even Saint Louis, the Capetian King of France who reigned in the 13th century, stopped in Vézelay before setting out from Aigues Mortes for the land of the Turks.
The abbey’s ornate portal and façade, and especially the tympanum of the central portal are particularly unique in style. Unlike its contemporaries, Vézelay’s tympanum depicts the Pentecostal Mission of the Apostles, and not the Apocalypses.
The lintel of the portal portrays the “ungodly” people of the world. Those who have not yet received the Word of God. And these non-believers are depicted as crazy, ugly, misshapen, and/or demon-like. Sitting in front of the façade, we both scrutinize the many dwarves, and other physically grotesque figures on the lintel. And imagine how both believers and non-believers back in the Middle Ages must have felt…
Behind the abbey lie a bunch of antique ruins. They are scattered across the whole site, and serve as “romantic” features. As we wander through the narrow, meandering back alleys, we can’t help but notice the countless restorations that some of the town’s buildings have undergone. Many of these restored medieval buildings, as well as the abbey itself, can be attributed to the (in)famous 19th century architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc.
Viollet-le-Duc intervened after Prosper Mérimée publically complained about the deplorable state of the ancient masonry in Vézelay. As a member of the Commission of Historic Monuments, Mérimée was in charge of crisscrossing the French territory and keeping record of all national heritages that had been damaged during the French Revolution. This was a protective measure particularly meant for religious sites, which had suffered the most throughout the uprisings.
The Vézelay Abbey was in fact the first medieval building that Viollet-le-Duc restored. But today, his methods of “restoration” can rather be considered as those of an architectural renovation or “updating”. Viollet-le-Duc never hesitated to creatively modify a medieval building by adding other regions’ local medieval features or even 19th century architectural elements.
In the Middle Ages, Vézelay was also a major starting point for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. It was called the via Lemovicensis and was one of the three major pilgrimage destinations, along with Rome and Jerusalem. Throughout the town, we stumble upon a handful of yellow scallop-shell signs indicating the official catholic pilgrimage route. The scallop shells are also scattered across the main road leading up to the abbey, directly embedded in the paved way.
If the abbey was one of the most important medieval pilgrimage centers, it’s primarily because of the relics that it holds. One of them supposedly contained the body of Mary Magdalene. Churches and convents were soon founded around the Vézelay abbey to accommodate the influx of pilgrims. And the abbey itself was also extended. Back then, the town had a population of ten thousand souls; today, a bare four hundred call it their hometown.
And yet, Vézelay is still thriving with pilgrimage today. A myriad of pilgrim shelters are strategically placed nearby religious sites. And from what we can see, they are fully packed. But the crowd there are travelers and globetrotters, neither specifically catholic nor religious. They form a new kind of pilgrims: modern secular backpackers, interested in history, architecture and nature.
This revival may be partially due to the fact that the town has been a beacon of refuge for the persecuted since the Second World War. Romain Rolland, the Swiss pacifist who died in Vézelay in 1944, and Christian Zervos, the famous art critic and collector, for example, chose Vézelay as their hometown during the occupation. Singers, painters and poets have chanted its merits ever since.
Vézelay truly has become what Maurice Barrès coined the “inspired hillside” (colline inspirée). Today, the town continues to be an obligatory halt on the pedestrian itinerary for peace seekers and flower children alike.
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