Vézelay Abbey (now known as Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine) was a Benedictine and Cluniac monastery in Vézelay in the Yonne département in Burgundy, France. The Benedictine abbey church of Ste-Marie-Madeleine (or Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene), with its complicated program of imagery in sculpted capitals and portals, is one of the outstanding masterpieces of Burgundian Romanesque art and architecture, though much of its exterior sculpture was defaced during the French Revolution. The church and hill at Vézelay were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979.
The Benedictine abbey of Vézelay was founded, as many abbeys were, on land that had been a late Roman villa, of Vercellus (Vercelle becoming Vézelay). The villa had passed into the hands of the Carolingians and devolved to a Carolingian count, Girart, of Roussillon. The two convents he founded there were looted and dispersed by Moorish raiding parties in the 8th century, and a hilltop convent was burnt by Norman raiders. In the 9th century, the abbey was refounded under the guidance of Badilo, who became an affiliate of the reformed Benedictine order of Cluny. Vézelay also stood at the beginning of one of the four major routes through France for pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, in the north-western corner of Spain
Vézelay and The Light
In 1976, after more than eight centuries, Hugues Delautre, one of the Franciscan fathers in charge of servicing the Vézelay sanctuary since 1966, discovers that not only the orientation axis of La Madeleine, but also its internal structure, have been determined taking into account the position of the earth relatively to the sun. Every year, the John the Baptist's feast day reveals the cosmic dimensions of this church: at the full midday of the summer solstice, when the sun is at its upper culmination over the earth, the light coming through the southern clerestorey windows create luminous spots that exactly locate in the full midst of the nave with a rigorous precision.
Interpretation of The Tympanum
The tympanum of La Madeleine de Vézelay is different from its counterparts across Europe
. From the beginning, its tympanum was specifically designed to function as a spiritual defense of the Crusades and to portray a Christian allegory to the Crusaders' mission. When compared to contemporary churches such as St. Lazare d'Autun and St. Pierre de Moissac, the distinctiveness of Vézelay becomes apparent.
The lintel of the Vézelay portal portrays the "ungodly" people of the world. It is a depiction of the first Pentecostal Mission to spread the word of God to all the people of the world. The figures in the tympanum who have not received the Word of God are depicted as not fully human. Some are shown with pig snouts, others are misshapen, and several are depicted as dwarves. One pygmy in particular is depicted as mounting a horse with the assistance of a ladder.
The Lower Compartments
The lower four compartments of the Vézelay tympanum show the nations that had already received the Gospels. They include the Byzantines, Armenians, and Ethiopians. The inclusion of the Byzantines is particularly important because it was the Byzantines who initially requested a Crusade to the holy land. The Byzantines had lost Jerusalem to the Seljuk Turks through warfare, and they were eager to seek western military support to reclaim that territory.
The Upper Compartments
While the lower four compartments represent the Christian nations, the upper four compartments are a representation of the second mission of the Apostles. According to the Bible, "many wonders and signs were done by the apostles." These wonders included the healing of the sick and the casting out of demons and devils. These acts are represented in the upper four compartments of the Vézelay tympanum. In one compartment, a pair of lepers is shown with looks of astonishment as they compare limbs that have been miraculously healed.
The Central Portal
The central portion of the Vézelay tympanum continues this process of politicizing religion. The central tympanum shows a benevolent Christ conveying his message to the Apostles, who flank him on either side. This Christ is distinct in Romanesque architecture. He is a stark contrast to the angry Christ of the St. Pierre de Moissac tympanum. The Moissac Christ is a forbidding figure that sits upon the throne of judgment. It is another example of the typical Romanesque Christ. His face is without caring or emotion.