Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In the steps of Pilgrims

I don't remember a whole lot about my undergraduate college courses - it was a long time ago. But I remember one semester where by happy coincidence, I experienced a three-dimensional immersion in the world of Western Europe during the Middle Ages.

Required to take history and humanities, I ended up with History of Medieval Europe and History of Art. In my major, Theatre, I had to take Costume History. So in one semester I learned about kings and crusades; powerful city states and duchies - and then went to another lecture hall to take notes on how the architecture of cathedrals evolved from Romanesque to Gothic to High Gothic to Renaissance. And then in the afternoon, I learned how clothing was constructed, layered, cinched; with multiple sleeves and slashed, puffed doublets; how ladies' headdresses of linen veiling and knotted netting were wrapped and rolled; how the pointy-toes of French slippers were attached to little chains hung from peoples' calves, while the slippers of Venetian men were as rounded as ducks' bills.

It all added up to a vivid picture that resonated far longer for me than other historical study I'd ever experienced before or since, and it took hold of my imagination. That's why when I realized our visit to Dijon, in Burgundy, brought us near the old Medieval town of Vezelay, I suggested we visit it.

When you drive toward the town of Vezelay, in northern Burgundy, you see its hill on the horizon above the surrounding fields and woods.

I found myself wondering if this was how those approaching the city during the 12th century, its era of greatest fame, might have seen it first.

Vezelay was the Medieval equivalent of a tourist attraction since the end of the first millenium, when relics of Mary Magdalene were brought by a monk to be housed in its Abbey. Fame increased in 1058, when the Pope certified that the relics were the real thing. People flocked to the town to pray, view, worship, or just try to hook on to the publicity of the saint.

The town became an important stop for pilgrims journeying on the Way of St. James - the route to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain, where St. James was said to be buried.

In 1104, a new church was built to accommodate the demand. Over the next two centuries, the church - called the Basilique de Marie-Madeleine - was burned, rebuilt, added on to, and burned and rebuilt again. It was such a famous place that St. Bernard of Clairveaux preached the Second Crusade there, and Thomas a Becket used a sermon he spoke there to threaten King Henry II of England with excommunication.

In 1279, however, a rival Magdelenian shrine stole attention away from Vezelay, and it lost its popularity. By the mid 19th century, the basilica would have collapsed had not Napolean's inspector of historical monuments, Prospere Merimee, saved it by appointing architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc to restore it.

Today the town of Vezelay is still tiny, with a population of less than 800 residents. Tourists who come here park in lower lots, and walk up the narrow and steep streets of the town to the Basilica.

When we went to Vezelay, we skirted the main parking area and drove around the side until we found a space. Then we walked through a gate in the town ramparts, flanked by a round crenelated tower.

We chose the path that went uphill - figuring that was the best way to the basilica.

We took a steep stairway through a residential neighborhood.

Then we treked up even more. We came out at the top, in the square before the church, and were able to see the magnificent facade rising before us.

The Basilica of Mary Magdalene is still an attraction, both to believers (the Vatican kindly provided a replacement set of relics for the old ones, which were destroyed by the Huguenots in the 17th Century) and to those who appreciate architecture. It is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe, featuring

a carved tympanum - or semi-circular pictorial feature - that depicts the Pentacostal mission of the Apostles. The tympanum on the front of the building is a 19th century reconstruction by Viollet-le-duc - it's this one, in the narthex, or inner porch of the basilica, that's the real deal.

It's unique in Romanesque art. Similar carvings at other churches of the era depict standard theological doctrine, usually the Resurrection of Christ, preparing the congregation to contemplate the fate of their souls.

Vezelay, through the allegory of Apostles' mission to spread the Word of God to the world, serves as a promotional message for an all too human political effort - the Crusades. The tympanum reinforces Bernard of Clairveux's sermon just like a billboard at the gates of Disneyland sells cartoons and movies.

It includes images of the inhabitants of foreign lands, barely human creatures with odd or ugly physical characteristics, while the Christian nations are depicted as noble and benevolent. The message is clear - the Good Guys are being urged to go out and save the Holy Land from the Bad Guys.

The nave of the basilica is the oldest part of the building, dating from 1165. Arches of striped light and dark stone emphasize the length of the nave, and create a soaring, beautiful space that must have been amazing and awe inspiring to pilgrims who came from small towns.

The capitals of each column are carved with figures depicting a different story, parable, or allegory from Scripture - like ancient comic books for people who couldn't read, at a time when printed bibles were unheard of.

Two curving stairs beneath the transept take you to the Crypt, which is among the earliest parts of the structure. The stone floors are lumpy and uneven. Behind a screen lies the reliquary. The relics that the early pilgrims had come to pray to were destroyed by the Huguenots in the 17th Century, so in 1876, the Archbishop of Sen donated some new ones.

Wow. When you're down there, it's easy to feel the weight of all that stone above you. We came out and decided it was time to get out in the fresh air for some lunch.

East of the basilica is a wide grassy area, encircled by a broad parapet wall. Beyond is the view of the surrounding woods and vineyards. The sky was changeable, with clouds tossed by the wind. We found a nice location for our picnic.

While we ate, a group of kids led by monks dressed in long robes came into the park. Vezelay is still an active monastic community today. Pretty soon a makeshift game of soccer was underway. It's amazing how fast those guys can chase the ball in their robes.

When we left, we walked back into the square and then down through the narrow streets, down past the doorways and through the gated portal to our car.

We Americans aren't used to very old things. Almost 40 years ago, I sat in an Ohio lecture hall, watching slides and listening to someone talk about this place, and how important it was to so many pilgrims, hundreds, even a thousand years ago. It would never have occured to me that someday I would be here, walking the same narrow streets as so many weary feet before me.


Gilly said...

What a fascinating old medieval town. I so enjoyed my walk through it with you. There is such a sense of history in these places, especially when they are still lived in, and not just museums.

I loved the nave of the basilica, all those Norman arches, such a feel of space and holiness. And I loved the stone, the steps, the walls - well all of it really!

The type of stone that towns are built in makes a difference to the "feel" of a place. Warm stone, like this little town gives a happy, living feeling, but cold grey granite can be rather chilly!

And what fascinating courses you did!

cactus petunia said...

Wow! Have you ever considered teaching history?
I love the 21st century comparisons to the 12th century...the billboards and comic books. The similarities, not the differences, are what make history come alive!

And we're STILL embarking on crusades, 800 years later. Sighhh. Some things never change.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for giving us the kind of history lesson that you appreciated so much in college! I love computer-chair touring with you! :)