The tourist buses winding their way up the steep incline to Vézelay should not deter you from visiting this attractive hilltop hamlet, surrounded by ramparts and with some of the most picturesque, winding streets and crumbling buildings in Burgundy. While the main draw is undeniably the Basilica of Ste-Mary La Madeleine, Vézelay is also a popular destination for art-lovers, with many small galleries and antique shops on rue St-Pierre, and an impressive art collection in the Musée Zervos.
Pilgrims journey to Vézelay to venerate the relics of Mary Magdalene (1120), housed in one of the seminal buildings of the Romanesque period, the Basilica of Ste-Mary La Madeleine, one of the first UNESCO-inscribed sites in France. On the church’s west front the colossal narthex was added to the nave in 1140 to accommodate the swelling numbers of pilgrims. Inside, your eye is drawn to the sculptures of the central doorway, on whose tympanum a Pentecostal Christ is shown swathed in exquisitely figured drapery. From Christ’s outstretched hands, the message of the Gospel shoots out to the apostles in the form of beams of fire, while the frieze below depicts the converted and the pagans – among those featured are giants, pygmies (one mounting his horse with a ladder), a man with breasts and huge ears, and dog-headed heathens. The arcades and arches are edged with fretted mouldings, and the supporting pillars are crowned with finely cut capitals, depicting scenes from the Bible, classical mythology, allegories and morality stories. The orientation of the church is such that, during the summer solstice, the sun coming through the south windows creates a line of nine luminous spots bisecting the nave floor.