There are sights impossible to forget: the first glimpse of your child, or the look on the face of a your beloved at a moment of perfect happiness. My first sight of Vézelay was such a moment of perfection for me, a small medieval town clustered on a steep hill with a single narrow road winding its way to the top of the rise where stands the Basilica of Mary Magdalene. It must have always been this impressive, especially to the pilgrim throngs wending their way to the church. During the Middle Ages, this basilica was the starting point for one of the four main routes from France to Santiago de Compostella. So famous were the relics of Mary Magdalene enshrined here that the church was the site of its own pilgrimage and the monks who brought the relics from Provence were celebrated.
On Easter Sunday 1146, on the great open hillside to the north of the basilica, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade to an enormous multitude gathered to hear him — King Louis VII, princes and peasants, clergy and laity. A few years later, two kings, Phillipe Augustus of France and Richard the Lion-hearted of England, assembled their forces here to begin the Third Crusade.
Vézelay was also the site of a violent century-long social and political struggle among several parties — the monks and abbots of the abbey of Vézelay, the great abbots of Cluny, the Count of Nevers, and the merchants of Vézelay. The disputes over control of the fees and the rights of the various parties escalated to such heights that in 1106 the Abbot Artaud of Vézelay was murdered by townspeople. Three popes and two French kings tried to mediate a settlement, but the forces of history were in opposition, not just the rights of the nobility, the Church, or an emerging mercantile class.
Eventually the power of the abbey waned, the legitimacy of the relics of Mary Magdalene was disputed by monks in Provence, and a pope eventually denied their authenticity. The pilgrims stopped visiting and the economy suffered. With the Renaissance, things human replaced things divine, and Vézelay sank into oblivion, a silent monument to the glories of the Romanesque revival in France.
But all of this fascinating history and picturesque charm aside, Vézelay is simply the most beautiful Romanesque church on Earth. My first view of the interior view of the great long nave from the narthex is forever etched on the slate of my mind. Above the doors from the narthex to the church rises the astonishing sculpted tympanum of Christ sending the Apostles to preach to the peoples of the world. Here in the narthex, the pilgrims waited for the great wooden doors to open for them to enter and view the sacred relics of Mary Magdalene. Once inside the nave, we see the groin-vaulted ceiling, the great pillars, the alternating black and white stones of the vault bands and, an eye’s focus distant, the Gothic apse awash with light. She is so powerful at first glance that senses are overwhelmed — all we can do is surrender to one of the great monuments to faith. The builders of the Basilique Sainte Madeleine were not motivated by any creed that we can fully understand; there was something even beyond religion. There was elemental faith, a certainty of God’s presence in this house.
To appreciate Vézelay is to watch sunlight move like a living thing across walls of stone, then suddenly create a vision of indescribable, aching beauty. It is to watch shadows deepen around a priest sitting solitary in a side chapel waiting patiently for a penitent to come for confession. It is to hear the songs of nuns echo off the vaulted ceiling and ring like bells in the human soul. David sang in the Psalms, “You, O Lord, will be my light; by you, my God, the dark will be made bright for me,” and in Vézelay this is palpable.
So many days PJ and I have brought camera equipment into the church and have seen and captured images that make me wonder if it is even us taking the pictures. It is enough to sit and watch and wait, and suddenly the shot appears, as if summoned by the Magdalene herself. It has never failed to occur, and I don’t imagine that it ever will. In September 2008, at the end of two full days of shooting in the church, I sat on the stone wall leading down to the crypt where Mary’s relics have been kept for so long, venerated by so many. The originals were destroyed in the paroxysm of the French Revolution, but new ones have been placed in this crypt and are visited to this day. I was quiet and trying to remain inconspicuous because the priest was in the side chapel of Saint Teresa of Ávila hearing confession. Every once in awhile, a young man or an elderly woman would come and sit next to him on a small wooden stool. With heads huddled together they would murmur quiet words of repentance and forgiveness. At the end, a sign of blessing and then footsteps echoed on the flagstones. It seemed to me, sitting near, the church was silent and reverent, fulfilling its very purpose even if it was only a single person seeking the expiation of sins.
In this silence, a new thought entered my consciousness, something never expressed before. With this thought came a tumult of emotions, a release of waves of images and thoughts and feelings. I suddenly understood the need for God; even if I did not acknowledge that need for myself, I knew with certainty that it existed. It was a terrifying moment, unsettling and disturbing. I struggled to lock this transient understanding firmly in my mind so as not to forget, so that it did not turn into a mere anecdote. After some time a sound entered my consciousness, emanating from the pillars, the walls, arches, from the blocks of granite themselves. I don’t know how long I sat there, rapt, listening, as the flow coursed through me in a flood that grew in intensity. And all the while, this faint sound of music.
Eventually, I became aware of being watched, of not being alone in my thoughts. I turned to see a strong young priest standing next to me, with a small and knowing smile.
“Elle chante, Pere,” I said, “elle chante aujourd ’hui.” (“She sings, Father, she sings today.”) His smile broadened, he nodded, and he went off down the aisle, leaving me with my thoughts. And on this day, Magdalene was singing, her very stones ringing with song.
If you are interested in seeing more of these images, please see the Via Lucis website.