Twilight in Vézelay (Dennis Aubrey)


The hundreds of posts on this blog should convince even the most casual reader of the creative genius displayed by the Romanesque builders. The buildings themselves, the sculptural and painted adornments, their positions in towns and in the country all attest to a fervor both religious and creative. Even the spatial orientation was important, almost always west to east, with the apse and tabernacle in the east.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica writes, “There is a certain fittingness in adoring towards the east. First, because the Divine majesty is indicated in the movement of the heavens which is from the east. Secondly, because Paradise was situated in the east according to the Septuagint version of Genesis 2:8, and so we signify our desire to return to Paradise. Thirdly, on account of Christ Who is “the light of the world” [John 8:12; 9:5, and is called “the Orient” (Zechariah 6:12). Who mounteth above the heaven of heavens to the east (Psalm 67:34), and is expected to come from the east, according to Matthew 24:27, “As lightning cometh out of the east, and appeareth even into the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be.”

But these churches go far beyond mere orientation; the very placement of windows was often part of the considerations of using stone and light to tell the religious story behind the construction. We have shared in the past how at the church of San Juan Ortega in Burgos, sunlight is used to make a religious expression. Twice a year during the equinoxes on March 20 and September 3, sunlight makes a journey across the wall of the church to illuminate the Annunciation capital on the north side of the church. Under normal conditions, it is difficult to make out the capital in the dim light, but on these two days a ray of sunlight enters through a window of the west façade. The sun rises up to the capital and progressively reveals all of its details of the sculpture. Scenes that were barely visible are suddenly filled with light.

Apse, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In 1976, Hugues Delautre, one of the Franciscan fathers in charge of servicing the Vézelay sanctuary since 1966, observed that at precisely mid-day on the summer solstice, the sun comes through the south clerestory windows and projects ten luminous rings of light down the center of the nave, tracing a path from the narthex to the chancel.

Father Delautre believed that such signs are the means to invite us to go beyond the reality of the sign to discover the ineffable. “Has not the builder, fascinated by the beauty of the universe which he recognises as the work of God, erected this vestibule to Heaven in imitation of God who created with order, measure and beauty? … The nave is the expression of the romanesque man’s admiring submission to the divine plan testified to by all creation. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.’ (Psalms 19:1).”

South side aisle, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

In order to achieve the solstice effect, it was necessary for the builders to calculate the angle of the sun based on the orientation of the basilica, the height of the windows, and the azimuth of the sun at a particular time. There were ample resources to do so because astronomic calculation was one of the established sciences of the time and there were tables available to help in the calculation.

But there was another element to consider. For the effect to be successful, the nave wall with the windows must be perpendicular to the azimuth. Consider how precise this particular calculation must be in order to have the circles of light in Vézelay come to the exact right positions over the length of the nave.

This may have something to do with the well-known fact that there is often a slight deviation from a straight line from the nave to the apse. The apse is often a few degrees one direction or another off-center. There are many explanations, from the symbolic reference to Christ’s head falling to one side in the crucifixion to the technical explanation that the adjustment creates more visual interest in the perspective lines of the receding pillars.

Groundplan, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Image in the public domain.

Groundplan, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Image in the public domain.

Some people think that it is accidental, a fault of construction. I find it hard to believe that builders who were capable of the most extraordinary feats of measurement and placement would make such a gigantic mistake as not laying out the church properly. Might there not be an explanation that as the church was being built, observations of the angle of the sun falling in the chancel (which was built first) might indicate that a slight adjustment in the placement of the nave was needed in order to achieve a desired visual effect with sunlight at a certain time of year?

Nave arcade, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

It is clear, however, that light was of fundamental importance to the builders of the churches. Sometimes the light is as simple as a shaft penetrating from a single window above the chancel. Other times, it is a glorious and radiant display of color and texture from stained glass that transfixes the viewer. When the churches were painted, as they so often were, we would have had the interaction of light on color, like Saint Austremoine.

Vezelay has no colored light, like the Gothic cathedrals, only the purity of white light. But as many of our readers have observed, there is something wonderful about the simplicty of the unadorned stone.

North side aisle, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ is very sensitive to light in these churches. We talk about it often and one of the things she is most fond of is the way light plays on the different shapes – the cylindrical columns, the arches, the flat surfaces. In this shot there is light from the windows and even from the collection of candles.

Ambulatory chapel, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

The natural accompaniment to light are the shadows that make the churches so evocative. The tremendous variation in tone compels us to look over and over. We see more and we feel different things with every viewing.

Side aisle to ambulatory, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

And of course, the light plays wonders on the capitals. They often seem to tell different stories as the changing light accentuates different areas of the sculpture. It is almost as if the meaning is recast continuously.

Nave capital, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Dark and light are so pronounced in Vézelay, and varies by one’s position in the church, the time of day, the time of year, on whether it is sunny or cloudy outside. PJ has described before emerging from a crypt into the lighted church and experiencing the sensation of birth, or rebirth. In Vézelay, we sense much the same thing in the anticipation of leaving the narthex and entering into the “paradise” of the church itself.

Narthex, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

The light is part of the fundamental experience of Vézelay. We have photographed here at least ten times and we see and experience something new every time. The light defines the basilica, and in the wonderful words of Sartell Prentice, the Basilique Sainte Madeleine is “twilight beneath the groin vault of the Romanesque nave; midday in the Gothic apse”.

15 responses to “Twilight in Vézelay (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. A wonderfully uplifting post on Vezelay, perhaps the epitome of the Romanesque style! I hope this was able to get you out of your sorrow over your friend Patrick’s passing. Jong-Soung

    • Thanks, Jong-Soung. Patrick is gone, and I feel so much for his family right now. And you and I share an admiration for the basilica in Vézelay. It is strange that I see things through PJ’s shots that I missed in all the times that we have been there – perhaps ten visits, with thousands of shots.

    • Helen, you have seen many of these churches, as we have. And we see more every time we look, no matter who many times we have seen any individual church. Two years ago, PJ and I were in Conques for a few days to shoot Sainte Foy. Before we started to photograph, we sat down to look for awhile, like normal. And we saw things that we had missed in all of our previous trips. I’m not talking small details, but enormous design choices that created the visual rhythm of the church. I could only shake my head that we had never seen them before.

  2. Dennis, The other rich connection here is of course that people have been orienting structures since at least 2000 bce to align with the movement of the sun (Ireland, England, Egypt to name a few places) and the Roman shrines that the Christians copied/took over were also oriented with their altars east toward the rising sun. So there are deep roots in Christianity that make it only one small part of human responses to creation.

    • Janet, I like the reasoning behind things that have been done for years. Aquinas’ reasons were presented with the same force of logic that made it seem inevitable that God’s hand was seen everywhere in his time.

    • Thank you, Angélica. I had to look up your site when I saw “Colomine” in your email address. It is one of our favorite churches – Colomine-sous-Vodables in the Auvergne.

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