Travels in Burgundy: Vézelay October 1 2013

The Basilica
The Basilica in Vézelay

The ancient hilltop village of Vézelay has been a gathering place for Pilgrims since about 1040 C.E. when an enterprising Abbot declared that their Basilica possessed the body of Mary Magdalene – a great holy relic. Henceforth and until its decline two centuries later, Vézelay was not only a destination in its own right but also an important milestone on the road to Compostela and the shrine of Saint James in Galicia, which, after Rome, was perhaps the most celebrated pilgrimage destination in Europe – at the height of its popularity in the late 11th and 12th centuries, an estimated half a million pilgrims a year made the arduous trek across the Pyrenees to this holy site.

Vézelay is also the setting for the first scene in Holy the Sword when young Rohan de Brancion is among those who gathered to hear the great Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) preach his famous sermon calling for a Holy war against the Saracens who had recently re-conquered parts of the Holy Land (taken from them by the Christians during the First Crusade 1096-1099). A cross now marks the spot from which Bernard preached to an enraptured crowd of several thousands milling around in the fields below the Basilica – the Church itself was not large enough to contain the throng. On the podium with Bernard was Louis VII, the pious twenty-four-year-old King of France, who had already pledged himself to take up the Cross and lead an army to the Holy Land, as well as other dignitaries and leading Churchmen – including possibly the other great Burgundian Churchman of the day, Peter of Montboissier, Abbot of Cluny. It is no wonder that an idealistic sixteen-year-old would have been overawed by such an occasion.

Modern Vézelay from a distance
Modern Vézelay from a distance

Probably not much has changed since those days, except that Vézelay, unlike most places of note in early medieval Europe, has actually shrunk since the 12th century when it was said to consist of some 10,000 people. Now only a few hundred souls inhabit this picturesque village, with its steep main street winding up to the Basilica.  Still, climbing that crooked quarter mile – “the Hill of Joy” as the pilgrims of old called it – feels like a journey back through time, knowing that millions of feet have trodden this path before you. Looking to left and right, you notice wooden doors in the sidewalks opening onto cellars below ground – wine cellars, of course . . . but not always. These were originally sleeping quarters intended to house the hordes of pilgrims visiting the Basilica or passing through town on their way to Compostela. Stepping on a dead rat proved a nasty reminder of what conditions would have been like for the pilgrims packed into those cellars – no wonder Rohan preferred hiking home after “church” than staying another night in Vézelay. By the way, forget the story about the rat, the village is charming: I must have just manifested him thinking about those medieval conditions! Moving right along…

Interior of the Basilica
Interior of the Basilica

The Basilica itself is a marvel of medieval architecture in which the Romanesque narthex and nave of the early 12th century merges gracefully into the high Gothic transept and choir of the latter part of the century. My favorite parts of the Basilica are the amazingly detailed carvings of scenes from the Bible on the stone capitals around the church – my particular favorite is the oldest one of all, possible dating back to the time of Charlemagne in the 9th century, of Eve dangling a bunch of grapes (not an apple!) in front of Adam – this is, after all, the wine country!

After a delightful visit in Vézelay (the rat incident notwithstanding), it was time to wend our way to Cluny – or at least find the route Rohan was most likely to have taken in 1146. This proved rather more challenging than the maps indicate, although the ominous and all-pervasive presence of green and blue, representing forests, hills and rivers, ought to have given us a clue.

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