The cathedrals of northern France part 7: Vezelay

There is a small hill about 140 miles southeast of Paris, surrounded by fields and forests. On its southwest slope is a small town, barely a village, population 480 people, with a hotel near the bottom and the basilica of St. Mary Magdalene at the top, an abbey church dating to the 10th century. On the slope to the opposite side of the town are simply more woods.

At this hill, in 1146, the renowned cleric, Bernard of Clairvaux, later Saint Bernard, called for a second crusade to the Holy Land. Now, it seems a remote spot to initiate such an epic enterprise, but on March 31 of that year, with King Louis VII present, the influential abbot preached to a crowd in a field. A platform was built just outside the town and Bernard called for the masses to “hasten to appease the anger of heaven,” in retribution for the losses suffered after the First Crusade.

“Hasten then to expiate your sins by victories over the Infidels, and let the deliverance of the holy places be the reward of your repentance,” he said. “Cursed be he who does not stain his sword with blood.”

Bernard wrote to the pope a few days later, “Cities and castles are now empty. There is not left one man to seven women, and everywhere there are widows to still-living husbands.”

The Second Crusade was eventually a bust, failing to achieve its goals, but as you stand now in Vezelay, where the call went out, you can feel both the weight of the endeavor, and the astonishment that such a sleepy community could ever have been the site of anything so momentous.

But back then, Vezelay was the center of a thriving abbey, and its church is now visited each year by many times the number of the village’s permanent inhabitants.

Compared to the famous cathedrals further north, Vezelay’s basilica is small and simple. But it is exceptionally beautiful.

It had rained all our way to Vezelay, and it was dusk when we got to the town and could see the tower of the church high on the hill through the mist, like something from a Hiroshige print.


In the morning, with the sun come out and the waters subsiding, we started up the hill toward the abbey church. At the hotel, a sign said, “Pas voiture; pietons seulement” — “no cars, pedestrians only.” So we walked, up the hill, rather higher and more difficult on foot than it appeared, past souvenir shops, brasseries, a book store, the mairie (or city hall), past home with bright flowers outside and past gated house with BMWs in the yard.

Huffing and puffing, we made the summit and the west facade of the church, looking quite Romanesque. Most of what we had seen had been Gothic, but the buildings constructed before the 12th century were designed to a different principle, one heavier with stone and parsimonious with windows.

Almost all of them, however, were begun in the earlier style and later added on to with the later style, often obliterating the Romanesque underneath or replacing it entirely. At Vezelay, you have a Romanesque facade and nave, but a Gothic choir and apse at the far end. Whether by design or accident, it makes a visit to the church a sacred metaphor, from the darker interior of the Romanesque to the illumination of the Gothic.



This metaphor is amplified by the unusual narthex of the church. In most cathedrals, the narthex is the junction between the west facade of the church and the beginning of the nave. It functions both as an architectural joint, and as a kind of foyer. In Vezelay, the narthex is blown out to fully three bays, with a second portal inside. This three-doored portal, with its own tympanums, used to be the exterior of the church, before the narthex was added, making the narthex a kind of overture to the main event. This first experience of the church interior is notably dark, with few windows.

Enter through the second set of portals and the nave is much more brightly lit. It is a long nave, 10 bays long, and with barrel vaults painted in striking dark and light checks.

The choir is Gothic, and so, brighter still. The path is from dark to light as you reach the “holier” end of the basilica.

The glory of the big churches and cathedrals can be found in the glass, with the rose windows and the lancets. The outside of the buildings are gaudy with Gothic statuary, tall, gaunt and and stately, but with distinct and individual faces. Vezelay has little glass to note, and its sculpture is Romanesque, not Gothic.

In ages past, the Romanesque style seemed primitive and childish, with large heads and hands, poor proportions and sometimes goggling eyes. But fresher, 21st century perspectives can see them through the abstraction and distortion of Modern Art and they seem not primitive at all, but profoundly expressive.

Alas, much of the sculpture is not original, but replaced in the original style by — guess who — Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century. Yet, many of the originals remain. You can sort out the difference between the more weathered look of the originals and the smooth surface of the replacements.

Looking at the many column heads in the nave of the abbey church at Vezelay, you can see the narrative drive of the Romanesque artists. Many tell Old Testament stories, such as David and Goliath, or the slaying of Absalom by Joab, or even the rather comical Noah and his wife.

One of the weirdest is the depiction of the sin of lust, a naked woman tearing at her distorted dug while, on the back side of the capital, a demon delights in the torment he causes her.

In another, Moses grinds the Old Testament through a flour mill to form the New Testament, received by St. Paul.

And on another, Ever receives the apple from the serpent in her right hand, while serving up the fruit to Adam with her left hand.

At so many other churches, you spend your time being absorbed up into the cosmos — into the great spaces defined by the nave and vaulting, almost being sucked up into the heavens. But in Romanesque churches, the heaviness of the stone cannot give you the escape velocity you need. Yet, replacing the marvel of the spaciousness, you find yourself standing before column after column, looking up to the top and gasping at the expressiveness of the sculpture.

We are often told that the Gothic cathedral was meant to be scripture in pictures for the illiterate public. But when you stand at the bottom of the well in such buildings, it is nearly impossible to read the imagery of the stained glass, so high above. Surely the mass of the population, either nearsighted or astigmatic, could never read the Bible stories there.

But in the smaller Romanesque, the stories told in the sculpture couldn’t be clearer. You can make out the stories very well.

Vezelay is a palate cleansing change of pace before moving on the the queen of Gothic cathedrals, Chartres.

Click on any image to enlarge

Next: Chartres

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