Thursday, May 3, 2018


Today I want to talk about a monastery that, unlike the ones I've been discussing recently, never became the head of a monastic order.  But it was and is an extremely significant one:  the Burgundian monastery of Vézelay.

It was a Benedictine monastery for men for most of the Middle Ages, but it began, interestingly enough, as a nunnery.  Count Girard and his wife, named Bertha, decided in 858 to found two monastic houses in Burgundy, one for men (Pouthières) and one for women (Vézelay).  The couple was buried at Pouthières (which you don't need to worry about, because it always stayed small and obscure).  The nuns at Vézelay soon decided life in a rural monastery was too scary and moved to town, being replaced permanently by monks.

By the eleventh century Vézelay was associated with the highly esteemed monastery of Cluny, but it always retained its own abbot, unlike many other houses in Cluny's order.  It really gained attention when it started asserting that it had the bones of Mary Magdalene.  Supposedly the "three Marys" (the Virgin, the Magdalene, and Mary sister of Martha) had all gotten in a boat after the Resurrection and headed west through the Mediterranean.  They got as far as the mouth of the Rhône, along the Riviera, and Mary Magdalene hopped out.

Though she died there in Provence, the monks of Vézelay wanted everyone to know, she was not happy with how she was treated by Provençal locals and appeared in a vision to the monks, asking to be moved to their monastery.  They were happy to oblige.  The house became a great pilgrimage center, both a place to revere the relics of Mary Magdalene and to begin the long pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain.

The church, built in the first half of the twelfth century, is considered one of the glories of Romanesque architecture.  One of its interesting features is that it is lined up along the axis of the sun, so that on the summer solstice light coming in the high side windows shines right along the church's central aisle, making a path of light.

In the image above, you can see that the choir end of the church, the part at the far end where the altar would have been, is just slightly crooked from the orientation of the nave (the main part of the church).  This is because the choir end was built first, and then the architect realized he needed a slightly different angle for the light-down-the-aisle effect.

At the winter solstice, the light instead would illuminate the capitals, the carvings of Bible scenes at the tops of the pillars.  Vézelay is noted for its striking capitals, as in the scene above showing the death of the rich man in the Dives and Lazarus story.

Vézelay was also the place where the Second Crusade was preached.  The Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux persuaded King Louis VII to go on what turned out to be a disastrous effort to retake part of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem that had recently been retaken by the Muslims.  Pilgrims still flock to Vézelay's hill today, though few seem inclined to take off for the Holy Land.  (Many however head for Spain.  I hear there's a bus.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

For more on monasticism, church architecture, and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.


  1. Did the Mary Magdalene story influence your own Cranky Saint tale? Speaking of which, shall we be meeting that saint again someday - some page?

  2. Mary Magdalene wasn't particularly cranky, but she was certainly typical of saints who "wanted" to be moved, and such stories certainly influenced my own stories.
    The Cranky Saint shows up in "Is This Apocalypse Necessary?" Have you read that?

  3. Yes. Twice now. I was refering to the new Starlight Raven series (given that the supporting-actor-prince was healed by the saint in "Is This Apocalypse Necessary").

  4. Glad you enjoyed it! Yes, the Saint shows up again in the second of the Starlight Raven next-generation series, with hints of more to come.