Genius and Vézelay (Dennis Aubrey)


This is a post about the genius of medieval craftsmen. Yesterday was our first day of shooting in France on this trip, at our favorite church, the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay. As always, she welcomed us with open arms, generous and giving. The word “genius” is bandied about so much – there are so many genius writers, musicians, film makers, bankers, businessmen, artists, scientists and mathematicians – that the term has become almost meaningless. The word is more devalued than the dollar.

But in Vézelay, we see true genius, the product of builders a thousand years ago who designed and built with stone a structure of astonishing beauty. Few of our current buildings will last two hundred years, much less a millennium. These medieval builders had no advantages of computers or complicated theories of aesthetics but they built churches that continue to astonish us with their boldness and imagination.

Here are four shots that demonstrate their inspiration.

Decoration around engaged columns, Basilique Sainte Madeleine (Vézelay)

This first shows a single band of decoration that runs along the nave above the arches of the nave arcades. When it reaches the engaged columns and pilasters, something extraordinary happens. Instead of stopping at the projections, the decoration shelves out brilliantly to encase the columns.

"Adam and Eve" capital, Basilique Sainte Madeleine (Vézelay)

Second,at the clerestory levels, the springing arches have lovely capitals, as one might expect. But more surprising, and certainly inspired, are the small demi-capitals on the window columns. In this example, the capital of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the demi-capital to the right continues the motif of the Garden. These capitals are forty feet or so in the air and almost invisible to the naked eye, but no detail is overlooked here at church of the Magdalene.

South side aisle, Basilique Sainte Madeleine (Vézelay)

Third, look at this shot of PJ’s where the south porch door opens into the side aisle. It is a glorious interjection into the space, mirroring the high aisle windows below the perfect groin vaults. The groin vaulting allows for the penetration of the thick walls with windows, and they give a rayonnant light to the aisle. The door fits in perfectly with the pattern of windows.

Altar hemicycle, Basilique Sainte Madeleine (Vézelay)

Finally, a touch of architectural genius where the word is earned by the anonymous builders. In the sanctuary, there are two arcade openings that lead to a hemicycle of six pillars framing five narrow spaces. On each side, there are two arcades of equal width, leading to the hemicycle openings which are half the width of the main arcades. In the second arcade, however, the volume is divided by a slender central pillar which forms the basis for twin arches. This leads perfectly into the hemicycle, where each opening is equal to the half arcade in the preceding bay. This division of the second bay eases the transition from the wide arcade to the narrow hemicycle openings perfectly. The transition is accomplished seamlessly, so that one does not even notice the variation in the width of the bays.

They say that God is in the details, and if Vézelay is an indication, they are right. Vézelay is divine.

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