Three weeks from today we will be in Vézelay and photographing the Basilique Sainte Madeleine. This is when we know we are in France; we have dinner at the Crispol hotel overlooking the valley with the basilica in the distance. We drive up the back roads to the basilica, carrying in our equipment and photographing the most beautiful Romanesque church in the world.
Every trip begins the same way and every time we feel the same deep relief and happiness to be back among our beautiful churches.
I have written before of the extraordinary sensations that we have experienced at the Basilique Sainte Madeleine. PJ has described 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.
We have seen over and over how many of the people we meet have a profound attachment to their church and to the saint for whom the church is named. PJ and I feel this; we refer to the basilica as “Madeleine” and we have a close attachment to her. We feel her presence as a person, not as a church. Except for her intervention, I am not sure that PJ and I would be together today.
Madeleine is beauty to the eye, a perfect combination of a Romanesque nave finished with a beautiful Gothic apse. The builders who merged these two different styles created a unique structure where the rounded Romanesque arcades covered with their groin vaults lead us inexorably to the ogive-arched hemicycle arcade, tribunes and clerestory with their ribbed oven vault. 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”.
Every evening the Franciscan community celebrates a vespers mass. This is the only church where I attend mass, and it is surely because of the beauty of the music in the great stone interior, where the sound seems to caress the stone.
The church is filled with the most magnificent sculpture – the capitals are world-famous and the narthex tympanum is a masterpiece. The Christ of that tympanum is unique; this is not the stern and forbidding symbol of the Last Judgment but a welcoming Christ, arms open, embracing the pilgrims of the world.
Finally, if you want to know what Vézelay means to us, you might be interested in watching this extraordinary sermon by Gordon Stewart where he reads from our post “Elle Chante, Pere.” The segment begins exactly at the 3:00 minute mark.
Location: 47.466317° 3.749021°