Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson

Just 3 hours on the A6 from Paris will bring you (back) to a remarkable era in French religious history. Situated in the Yonne department in Burgundy, Vézelay is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.

Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson

In 860, the hilltop site of Vézelay was donated to the Benedictine monks by Gerard, Count of Roussillon. Eudes, the monastery’s first abbot, claimed to have acquired the body of Saint Mary Magdalene. The authenticity of his claim was confirmed in Papal bulls by of Popes Lucius III, Urban III, and Clement III. By the 12th century, hosts of pilgrims had come to worship at the tomb. “All France,” wrote Hugh of Poitiers, “seems to go to the solemnities of the Magdalene.”

Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson

The Normans destroyed the original church, and construction of the present Basilica of St Magdalene began in 1096 and was dedicated in 1104. The church was rebuilt yet again between 1120-1150. It is a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture, the largest Romanesque church in France and only 10 yards shorter than Notre Dame in Paris.

The Basilica is renowned for its use of light. In particular, the nave was designed to create a spectacular effect twice a year. At midday on the summer solstice, nine pools of sunlight fall upon the exact centre of the nave, forming a path of light leading to the altar. And, at midday on the winter solstice, the pools of light fall exactly on the upper capitals of the north arcade.

Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson

The architecture itself is exceptionally attractive, with more light than most Romanesque interiors and a visual rhythm created by the rows of columns on the piers and the striped arches of the vault. Simply put, it is gorgeous, both inside and out.

Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson

Early on, Vézelay became the starting point of one of the main routes of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. As a pilgrimage church, classic seashell motifs can be found on the walls of the church and throughout the surrounding town.

Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson

Although it is no longer thought that Mary Magdalene’s body is in fact in the church, Vézelay has other claims to fame. Most notably, St. Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade from the steps of the Basilica in 1146, accompanied by King Louis VII of France. A vivid contemporary accounts states that crowd was so large that a large platform was erected on a hill outside the city so that all could hear St. Bernard’s speech. Bernard’s “voice rang out across the meadow like a celestial organ” and, when he finished, the crowd enlisted en masse. They quickly ran out of cloth to make crosses. Bernard is said to have flung off his own robe and began tearing it into strips to make more crosses. Others followed his example and he and his helpers were supposedly still producing crosses as night fell. Then they all set off on crusade.

Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson

Given the enthusiasm that was generated for crusading in Vézelay, Richard the Lionheart and Philip II Augustus returned to the town in 1190 to launch the Third Crusade.

At present, the town is peaceful and it is a lovely place to visit with narrow pedestrian-only streets winding upwards past perfectly preserved medieval houses to the main square and the church. There are views at every turn of the lovely farm fields below.

Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson
Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson
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