“Elle Chante, Pere” (Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Narthex, Basilique Sainte Magdalene,Vézelay (Photo by PJ McKey)

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.

Narthex tympanum, Basilique Sainte Magdalene,Vézelay (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

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. You can see it, you can feel it, you can touch it.

Afternoon mass. Basilique Sainte Magdalene,Vézelay (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Mary Magdalene's chapel, Basilique Sainte Magdalene,Vézelay (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

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. Magdalene was singing and the very stones rang with her song.

If you are interested in seeing more of these images, please see the Via Lucis website.

22 thoughts on ““Elle Chante, Pere” (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Was there ever an edifice on the face of the earth that has resisted more attempts to destroy it?

    As always, Dennis, your photographs are exquisite and uplifting!

    Elliott (elliottingotham.wordpress.com)

  2. Though your photographs are without doubt the work of a master, I was moved even more by the description you give of the sensations that assailed you while you meditated in that place. Somehow the seven centuries of prayer and worship give such places a precious aura of sanctity that is palpable. This I have felt many times in such places and though, like you, acknowledging my need for God has been difficult, I am persuaded by the sensations as you describe them. Thank you. It has clearly moved you as it has me. A very special place.

    1. John, the feelings are palpable and it is impossible to ignore the echo of centuries of prayers of the faithful. Elsewhere I have described something that we saw at the Festival of Sainte Foy in Conques a few years ago, where we witnessed a woman whose belief was so intense that it caused a physical reaction. She represented a faith that was universal 800 years ago, and stone itself cannot resist such importuning. PJ and I are continually confronted with these sensations and they are one of the reasons that we cherish this project. Thank you very much for your observations. Do you shoot churches in Scotland?

      1. Yes, I very much enjoy working with the light in churches up and down the country. I might post a few on my blog later. With so much to photograph in this wonderful world, though, I sometimes feel that I should narrow the field a little. Churches would almost certainly be on the short list.

    1. Graham, Vézelay is truly magnificent and the light changes minute by minute, day by day and season by season. We’ve shot there at least fifteen times and constantly see something new. The other day I was looking at one of PJ’s shots and asked her where it was taken. She looked at me like I was crazy and said “Vézelay!” All the times there and I’d never seen that particular view.

  3. Dennis, your photos of Vezelay and, even more, your description of your experience there became the centerpiece of my sermon this morning here in Minnesota. The writing is a beautiful as the photos. And your ending line, “…Magdalene was singing, her very stones ringing with song” reminded me of the Matthew text where Jesus responds to those who want him to quiet his disciples, “I tell you, if these keep silent, the very stones will cry out.” Were you, perhaps, thinking of that line when you wrote about the stones ringing with song?

    I would like your permission to post some of these photographs – with appropriate attribution – on the YouTube broadcast of this morning’s sermon from Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska. I have to apologize in advance for speaking the wrong name – you somehow became Richard Avery of some suich name in the words that came out of my mouth. The video will make it clear that the story and the photos are those of Dennis Aubrey. 🙂 I will also post the written sermon on my blog.

    Thank you for sharing such RICH material, Dennis. It’s beautiful, and it’s deep.

    1. Gordon, thank you for the very kind words and your moving letter. And yes, you were right, I was referencing the Matthew text. I referenced in another post as well decrying the destruction of these churches in the past.

      You are welcome to use the shots for your video, but please note that PJ McKey, my partner in life and in Via Lucis, created the first shot of the narthex. And send us the link, we would love to see it. And no problem with the name. Look forward to hearing the sermon and hearing more from you in the future.

      1. Thank you so much, Dennis. I’ve just copied your permission and your instructions to Chuck Lieber, the church member who does our video work. Please give my best to P.J.

        Grace and Peace,

  4. I have felt this “indescribable, aching beauty” in French churches. Not Vézelay, but in others. Thank you again for telling the world about these churches. The words expressing your inadequacy to describe Vézelay have nonetheless described it. Great photography, great writing.

    1. Trish, I appreciate the way you responded to the “Elle Chante, Pere” post, which is certainly one of my most personal. If you haven’t seen Vézelay, you should try to get there some day. There is magic in those stones.

  5. Your open response to Vezelay, as you say “beyond religion”, releases my corresponding love of the place, and the deep resonances of the French Romanesque and Gothic. My visit there in 1998 is as vivid today as then, thanks to your evocative written description and the vitality of the photographs you and PJ took.

    It is worth mentioning one of three short documentaries by Ken Burns titled “Seeing, Searching, Being”. In the second of the three, Burns filmed William Segal, a philosopher, visiting and meditating at Vezelay. This refreshment has helped keep my sense of the place alive when it seems too remote from the rush of modernity. Also fascinating is the early 19th c. restoration done there by Viollet-le-Duc. Controversies exist. Yet his intelligent and sensitive efforts add something there which enhances the experience.

    You express what makes Vezelay Vezelay: the accumulation of extraordinary experiences there.

    1. Anne, thanks for the comments and observations. We’ve seen the Segal film by Burns, and were moved by the work. The key is in your last sentence, the accumulation of extraordinary experiences there. The stones do speak and they do sing, as they do at Notre Dame de Chartres.

    1. Gordon, your sermon was so moving, that the words were new to both PJ and myself. Thanks for the link, and I look forward to hearing from others about it. Thank you so much.

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