Vézelay, Church and Hill - Visit time : half-day.
The hill of Vézelay entered into history in the 9th century, when it first hosted the relics of Saint Mary Magdalene. It became one of the four historic departure points on pilgrimage route of Saint Jacques de Compostela. And it was just few meters from the Romanesque basilica where the Third Crusade was begun, in the presence of the kings of France and England. At the foot of this architectural masterpiece lies the picturesque village of Vézelay, nestled next to the mound nicknamed the "eternal hill".
Imbued with a mystical dimension visitors walking along these medieval streets will discover the artistic treasures of the basilica, just as the pilgrims and artists who came here for spiritual or cultural inspiration have done throughout the past.
Shortly after its establishment in the 9th century, the Benedictine abbey of Vézelay acquired the relics of Saint Mary Magdalene and was an important place of pilgrimage. Saint Bernard preached the Second Crusade there in 1146 and Richard the Lion-Hearted and Philip II Augustus met there to leave for the Third Crusade (1190). With its sculpted capitals and portal, the Abbey of Madeleine of Vézelay – a 12th-century monastic church – is a masterpiece of Burgundian Romanesque art and architecture.
The origins of Vézelay are linked to the memory of a valiant knight, for whom a legend was born. Girart de Roussillon, hero of the lyrical epic that bears his name, was, with his wife Bertha, the founder of a monastery on the banks of the Cure River in 860. Pillaged a few years later by the Normans, a Benedictine abbey was rebuilt at the top of the nearby hill at its current location. The popularity of Vézelay would not come until later. The belief that the abbey held the relics of Mary Magdalene the repentant sinner was not spread until the middle of the 11th century.
Vézelay then became the ultimate endpoint of the great pilgrimages in Christendom, especially busy since it was located on one of the routes to Compostela. The influx of pilgrims was an advantage for the city that had, in the 12th century, 8,000 to10 000 people, a considerable population at the time. Vézelay had become such a vital center for the Christian West that the assembly for the commencement of the Second Crusade was held there on Easter of the year 1146: Saint Bernard preached that day in the presence of King Louis VII, Queen Eleanor, a crowd of nobles, prelates and people from all walks of life that had flocked to the hill. In 1190 again, it was in Vézelay that Philip Augustus and Richard the Lion Hearted gathered their armies together and started out for the Third Crusade.
In 1217, Saint Francis of Assisi chose the hill of Vézelay to found the first Franciscan settlement on French soil, and the king Saint Louis, who had a special devotion to the Abbey of Madeleine, went there four times. The beautiful abbey, rebuilt starting from 1096, is the most striking example of this exceptional destiny.
Criteria for selection
Criterion (i): the Abbey of Madeleine of Vézelay is one of the masterpieces of Burgundian Romanesque art. The nave (1120 - 1140), a little lopsided under the pressure of vaults, seems balanced by its large semicircular arches with colored cupola bricks, and by a series of capitals that are unique in the variety of themes presented (secular allegories and biblical and hagiographic scenes). But the reason for the universal fame of Vézelay is carved between the nave and the narthex portal. The tympanum, the "Mission of the Apostles", stems from an almost encyclopedic inspiration, revealing the science of the time. The magnitude and complexity of the themes did not in any way temper the invention and personal passion of the sculptor, who left here one of the major monuments of Western Romanesque art.
Criterion (iv): In the 12th century, the hill of Vézelay was a place of election where, in a sort of climax, medieval Christian spirituality gave birth to various and specific manifestations, ranging from prayer and the lyrical epic to the Crusade.
Source : Unesco / ICOMOS