Vézelay basilica visitor guide

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The basilica of Sant Mary-Magdalene is an important basilica (abbey church) in the village of Vézelay, in the south-east of the Yonne department of Burgundy-Franche-Comté.

The impressive location has been popular since Roman times, when an important villa was built here. This was later replaced by convents and an earlier abbey and churches (now disappeared). The story of the current abbey in Vézelay start in the 11th century, when monks from the town reported that they had some relics of Saint Mary-Magdalene, brought from the Holy land in the 9th century.

Discover the Abbey Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in Vézelay

France This Way review: the basilica in Vézelay is a remarkable example of roman style architecture that incorporates many features of interest and a visit is recommended

tympanum of the basilica

The first pilgrims to the church were ex-prisoners, who brought their chains as offerings to Mary Magdalene. The number of pilgrims incresed over time, and the abbey church was built to accommodate them. Two earlier 12th century churches here also burned down, and the current edifice was built in the middle of the 12th century.

In medieval times, the abbey developed an important role as a start point of one of the main pilgrim paths that cross France and Spain on the way to Santiago de Compostela. The Third Crusade, led by King Richard I of England and King Philip II of France, left from the abbey in 1190 to attempt to recapture the Holy Land.

The decline in the fortunes of Vézelay started in 1279, when the body of Saint Mary Magdelene was discovered in Provence, along with a detailed explanation of how and why the body had been hidden, and it was generally accepted that the relics in Vézelay were not those of Mary Magdelene.

The original abbey was very badly damaged during an attack by the Huguenots in 1569 as part of the Wars of Religion, then largely abandoned for the following two centuries. The relics that were said to be those of Mary Magdalene were also destroyed at this time.

The building was further damaged at the time of the French revolution, and it was only with the arrival of Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century that the first stages of renovation were started. (Viollet-le-Duc was the architect responsible for the renovation of many of the important monuments in France)

Although it has been substantially renovated, most of the abbey that you see in Vézelay today is substantially the same as the time it was built, between 1150 and 1190.


The basilica of Vézelay: architecture

There is an open square in front of the basilica that allows a good view of the facade. Ths is mostly in the roman style, and asymmetrical, with a tower on the right: the original plan included a similar tower on the left, but this was never built.

At ground level there are three roman style doorways, with a large carving above the central door (a 19th century replacement for the original , that was destroyed during the revolution), that represents the Last Judgement, with the jaws of hell on the right welcoming non-believers, while Christ with open arms welcomes the faithful.

Above this entrance, the facade includes two rows of statues of saints including Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the evangelist. At the rear of the church you can see the chevet, although this is not in the roman style - the original chevet collapsed in the 12th century and was rebuilt in the gothic style around 1190.

When you enter the basilica in Vézelay, you arrive in the narthex - a large porch area built to hold some of the pilgrims when there was not enough space inside the church.

It is here that you can see the most impressive example of roman style art in the basilica, with the sculpture of Christ and the apostles above the main entrance to the cathedral nave. Christ is sat with arms extended, representing the welcome to people conquered during the crusades, as well as forgiving the sins of all those who took part in the crusades.

Inside, the basilica follows a traditional design with three naves, a transept and an altar and choir area with a passage called the perambulatory behind the altar.

The nave in the cathedral is of a more simple design than the narthex, although the ceiling is made interesting by the use of alternating colours of stone for the arches, and on the columns either side of the main nave you can see capital stones, typically carved with foliage, imaginary creatures or biblical stories such as the story of David and Goliath.

To the sides of the nave you can see other doors with impressive carvings.

One unusual characteristic of the cathedral design that you will not notice - it took 800 years for experts to rediscover this medieval innovation - the church is carefully designed so that at summer solstice the sunlight through the windows creates a line of points of light along the centre of the nave: this would have helped emphasis the power and importance of God to church goers in the 12th century.

ceiling of the nave in basilica of Vézelay

Attractions nearby

The village of Vézelay is an attractive village that would be visited even if there was not a basilica here: see the Vézelay guide.

See more churches in France. You can find more travel ideas in the Yonne guide and the Burgundy guide.

See also: 

Photos of Vézelay basilica

Click any picture to start the gallery

  • capitals
  • ceiling
  • doorway
  • main-doorway
  • narthex
  • nave-1
  • nave-2
  • pignon-1
  • statue

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Visit near Vézelay basilica with France This Way reviews



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... or see ALL recommended places to visit in Yonne

The French version of this page is at Vézelay basilica (Francais)