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Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene Basilique de Vézelay Basilique Ste-Madeleine La Madeleine Vézelay Abbey Vézelay Basilica
Place de la Basilique Vézelay, Burgundy
Vézelay  locality
Yonne  county
Burgundy  state
France  country
Europe  continent
Main date(s)
47.466455° N, 3.748784° E

Description of Vézelay Abbey

Dating primarily from the early 12th century, the abbey church of Vezelay has a Romanesque nave and Gothic choir, both full of light. It is notable for its size: the narthex is an impressive 1,200 sq. km (4,000 sq. ft.) and the length of the nave nearly rivals the Notre-Dame in Paris. There is a beautiful view of Vezelay's lush valleys and rolling hills from the terrace behind the church.

Visitors to the Basilique Ste-Madeleine first enter the spacious narthex (porch), which contains three richly sculptured portals dating from about 1115. The great central tympanum depicts the Mission of the Apostles, or the preaching the Good News that Christ commanded at Pentecost. The inner archivolt around the tympanum and the lintel below are populated with the peoples of the world who will hear the message of Christ, including the "Monstrous Races" of foreign lands.

The pilgrims' route around the church is indicated by the majestic flowers carved over the north door (left). The tympanum depicts the pilgrims to Emmaus and the Ascension of Christ, while the south tympanum depicts various scenes from the Nativity.

The fascinating capitals of the nave were probably sculpted by artists from Cluny. They depict Bible stories, ancient legends and mythological creatures, often nestled within delicately carved foliage. The vast majority of biblical capitals illustrate the Old Testament, with John the Baptist and the story of Lazarus and Dives being the only New Testament themes represented. But the most famous capital at Vezelay combines the two: known as the Mystic Mill, it shows Moses grinding grain (symbolizing the Old Testament) into flour (New Testament), which Paul solemnly collects in a sack.

The basilica's Carolingian crypt has reliquaries holding a few small relics of St. Mary Magdalene. These are not the original relics that brought thousands of medieval pilgrims to Vezelay; those were burned by French Calvinists during the 16th century Wars of Religion. The present relics were given in 1876 by the Archbishop of Sens, whose diocese received them from Pope Martin IV in 1281.

Holly Hayes
October 27, 2011


Vézelay Abbey's history began in 860 AD, when the hilltop site was donated for the purposes of a monastery by Gerard, Count of Roussillon and his wife, Bertha. King Nicholas I in 867 and King Charles the Bald in 868 confirmed the donation.

The new monastery was overseen by the great Benedictine abbey at Cluny. Eudes, the monastery's first abbot, offered hospitality to King John VIII, who in 879 consecrated the first church. Norman invasions destroyed the original church, which was then restored under Abbot Geoffrey in the early 11th century.

It was also under Abbot Geoffrey that the abbey at Vézelay was first associated with St. Mary Magdalene. A papal letter from the year 1050 shows that the name of the saint was part of the official title of the abbey by that time.

It was also around this time that the monks of Vézelay recorded an account in which the remains of St. Maximinus and St. Mary Magdalene were taken from their tombs in St-Maximin (Provence) and brought to Vézelay. A second, slightly later, account relates that only the body of St. Mary Magdalene was taken.

For two centuries the account of the monks of Vézelay was accepted. Papal bulls of Lucius III, Urban III, and Clement III confirmed that they possessed the body of St. Mary Magdalene and the tomb of the saint began to be visited by pilgrims.

Construction on the present basilica began in 1096 under Abbot Artaud to properly honor the sacred relics and welcome the many pilgrims. The Basilica of the Madeleine was dedicated in 1104 by Paschal II, Artaud's successor.

Soon after, major conflict erupted. Abbot Artaud had demanded money from the townspeople for the reconstruction of the church and the monks refused to grant political independence to the citizens. This resulted in an insurrection in July 1120 in which the abbey was burnt and the abbot murdered.

His successor, Abbot Renaud de Semur, who later became Archbishop of Lyons, raised the basilica from ruins and added an abbot's palace. Work on the basilica's Romanesque nave was underway in 1120 and dedicated in 1132; the narthex was built around 1140-50. The original choir was destroyed by fire in 1165 and rebuilt in the Gothic style.

Three more revolts occurred before the end of the 12th century, encouraged by the counts of Nevers who wished to acquire the suzerainty over Vézelay for themselves. The monks were aided by the influence both of the Pope and of King Louis VII, however, and came out victorious in every instance.

Under Abbot Pontius of Montboisier (d. 1161), a former monk of Cluny, Vézelay emancipated itself from Cluniac rule, declared its autonomy against the claims of the bishops of Autun, and victoriously resisted the encroachments of the counts of Nevers.

Despite these conflicts, Vézelay continued to receive thousands of pilgrims and it hosted a number of important historical events. "All France," wrote the Vézelay monk Hugh of Poitiers (d. 1167), "seems to go to the solemnities of the Magdalen." The pilgrimage led to the town of Vézelay rising up around the abbey and an increase in the monastery's power and prestige.

The prestige of the abbey began to diminish in 1280 when the monks of St. Maximin claimed that the true body of St. Mary Magdalene had been discovered in their church. Consequently, the number of pilgrims to Vézelay declined sharply during the 14th and 15th centuries.

In 1538, a papal Bull of Secularization sought by King Francis I and the monks themselves transformed the abbey into a simple collegiate church. Odet de Chatillon, brother of Coligny and Abbot of Vézelay, subsequently became a Calvinist. During the 16th century Wars of Religion, Vézelay was thoroughly sacked by Huguenots. The Huguenot masters of Vézelay converted the Madeleine into a storehouse and stable and burned the relics.

And finally, during the French Revolution the ancient monastery buildings were destroyed and sold at auction. Only the basilica, cloister, and dormitory escaped demolition.

An attempt at restoration of the once-great pilgrimage site was made in 1876 by the future Cardinal Bernadou, Archbishop of Sens. The archbishop determined to restore the pilgrimage of St. Mary Magdalen at Vézelay and so brought a relic of the saint which Martin IV had given to the Chapter of Sens in 1281. The basilica itself was restored in 1840 by Viollet le Duc, who also repaired the cathedrals of Laon, Amiens and Paris.

Holly Hayes
October 27, 2011

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