Vézelay Abbey is a Benedictine and Cluniac monastery in Vézelay in the east-central French department of Yonne.
Vezelay Basilica history
Built between 1120 and 1150, Vezelay Basilica, also known as Vezelay Abbey or Basilique Ste-Madeleine, has been a place of pilgrimage since it was claimed that the relics of Mary Magdalene had been brought there, sometime before the twelfth century. Whilst it is unlikely that this was really the case, Vezelay Basilica has remained an important site for Christians.
In medieval times, Vezelay Basilica was a key stop for pilgrims making their way to the Spanish church of Santiago de Compostela. This fame was further enhanced by the important events that have taken place at the church, including a meeting between Richard the Lionheart and Philip Augustus in July 1190, just before they embarked on the Third Crusade.
Vezelay Basilica itself was founded as a Benedictine abbey in the ninth century, although the current structure was built later and completed in the 12th Century. A vast Romanesque structure resplendent with detailed carvings, such as its twelfth century tympanum – a depiction of Christ on His throne surrounded by the apostles – Vezelay Basilica has been registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979. Much of it was restored by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th Century.
Vezelay Basilica today
Vézelay, the “eternal hill”, has retained intact the landscape qualities of the site where its abbey was founded in the Early Middle Ages. It is dominated by the abbey church, the existence and activity of which gave rise to the town which ends at the foot of the slope. Beyond spread fields, meadows and forests.
The church and the public spaces of Vézelay belong to the commune, which is responsible for their conservation and development, under the scientific and technical control of the State. The church remains open throughout the day to visitors and although it can admittedly get quite busy, it is definitely worth a visit.
Getting to Vezelay Basilica
The small commune of Vézelay lies roughly 50 kilometres south of Auxerre, and roughly 125 kilometres from Dijon. If travelling by train, you can travel from Paris (Gare de Bercy) to Sermizelles (10 km from Vézelay) and take a taxi or shuttle bus (2 connections a day).
If reaching the destination by car, from Paris take the A6 motorway to Sens and from there to Auxerre. From Nitry take the D11, N6 then N151. If travelling from Lyon take the A6 motorway northbound to Mâcon, then to Beaune taking the Avallon exit, then the D957.
Vézelay (French: [vezlɛ] ) is a commune in the department of Yonne in the north-central French region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. It is a defensible hill town famous for Vézelay Abbey. The town and its 11th-century Romanesque Basilica of St Magdalene are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
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Vézelay, village, Yonne département, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté région, north-central France. The village lies on a hill on the left bank of the Cure River. Its history is tied to its great Benedictine abbey, which was founded in the 9th century under the influence of Cluny. After the supposed remains of St. Mary Magdalene were deposited in the abbey for safekeeping from Muslim armies, vast numbers of pilgrims were attracted to the abbey, and a town of about 10,000 inhabitants was established around it. St. Bernard preached at Vézelay in 1146 before Louis VII in order to inspire the Second Crusade. The influence of the abbey declined from the late 13th century on. The abbey and the hill were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.
The great abbey church of the Madeleine, which is one of the largest monastic churches in France, was started at the end of the 11th century. It was restored in the 19th century by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. Nearby, the medieval castle of Bazoches was rebuilt by French military engineer Sébastien Vauban, who is buried in the local church. The village still has most of its medieval ramparts. Pop. (1999) 492 (2014 est.) 435.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Maren Goldberg, Assistant Editor.
Basillica of Vezelay in Burgundy, France
The Basilica of Vézelay, dedicated to Saint-Madeleine is located in the village of Vézelay, Yonne department and was founded around the year 859 A.D. A humble monastery at its beginning, it evolved and suffered the century to become an incredible basilica, home to many events of even international importance.
The religious building was sacked by Norman raiders some twenty years after its construction, in 873 leading to its transportation in higher ground on the top of an hill. Following the sacks, the nuns who first occupied the abbey left and were replaced by monks. By the time, the abbey had been granted religious priviliges and was recognized by the royal authority.
In the early eleventh century, conflicts between the abbey and the counts of Nevers lead to trouble for Vézelay. The counts jalous of the priviligies the abbey enjoyed plotted a villagers' uprisings. The bishop of Autun also tried to forbid pilgrims to stay at Vézelay until the pope himself put an end to it. The twelth and thirteenth centuries saw the abbey at its apogee but also lead to drama. A fire destroyed some parts of they abbey, an abbot was murdered by revolting peasants certainly helped by a count of Nevers. The succeeding popes and kings of France tried for years to play the role of referee between the abbots and the counts, often for no end or until conflicts restart. In 1152, the abbey was sacked once more, this time by uprisers fomented by Nevers.
The twelth century was also the century of greatness for the abbey. In 1146, the pope asked Bernard of Clairvaux ( Saint Bernard ) to held his preaching of the third crusade near the abbey, on the top of an hill where a cross today stands. Two decades later in 1166, the bishop of Canterbury Thomas Beckett condemned his suzerain King Henry II of England. In 1190, the French King Philippe-Auguste and his counterpart the English King Richard the Lionheart met at Vézelay to prepare their expedition for the third crusade. Half a century later, the abbey welcomed King Louis IX, future Saint Louis for his first pilgrimage there. He would come three more times at Vézelay.
The following centuries lead to a slight decline of the abbey's popularity. The Wars of Religion which plagued France during the XVIth century did not spare Vézelay which was sacked and looted by the Huguenots. In the decades before the revolution, the abbey was almost abandonned and several of its buildings were demolished. During the revolution, what was left was sold or destroyed. It's only in the mid-nineteenth century that Vézelay was reborn and restored. In 1920 the abbey became a basilica by decree from Rome. Still today, the basilica is often restaured and it welcomes spectacles, archeological work and guided visits.
It is also worthwile to note that Vézelay was an important passage for those wishing to make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Indeed, Vézelay is located at a cross-road towards Santiago for those living further north.
Vezelay Basilica Restoration
Wanted to alert anyone planning a stop at Vezelay on their France itinerary. We visited for an afternoon and overnight the last week of May, 2019. The basilica -- the Cluniac abbey, which is the main reason for any visit to Vezelay -- is undergoing a major continuing restoration. The facade with its two towers is enshrouded in scaffolding, and workers are loudly and busily at their estimated 2-year task. Disappointingly, the entire narthex is closed off from view, including the famous tympanum over the central and two flanking portals. Nave and grounds are still open to visitors, and remain impressive in their Romanesque spirituality notwithstanding the intermittent power tool soundtrack. But no portals! Quel dommage!
We lucked out, however. A small notice near the visitor entrance clued us in that, beginning the very next day, guided tours of small groups (12 people) would be conducted on the half hour for 2 euros. Thanking our lucky stars we'd planned an overnight stay, you'd better believe we were first in line the following morning. Two experts in the basilica restoration led us behind the plywood and up two levels of scaffolding, and suddenly we were eye-to-eye with Christ, his bedazzled apostles, and the fantastical array of humanity and beasts in carved stone for which the tympanum is known. The guides explained the relief and the aims of the restoration -- true, mostly in French (the rest of our group was all French), but they answered our questions in English and their enthusiasm and love for the masterpiece was palpable. Quite an unexpected treat! While the overall impact of the portals and the tympanum as works of art was compromised, the close-up view was memorable, a far more unique experience than a walk-by at ground level would have been. I don't know if or how long these tours will continue, so it may be a gamble to depend on one if you visit. But they dramatically reversed a major disappointment for us.
I will put in a plug for the hotel we stayed in, Hotel Sy la Terrasse, literally a stone's throw from the basilica. At their restaurant we had one of the best dinners of our entire 17 days in France. Neither are in the RS France guide for Vezelay, but I'd recommend both.
Glad your disappointment was turned into an unexpected face to face look at these wonderful carvings. Sounds like such a unique experience. I’m so glad you stayed overnight in order to take advantage of this once in a life time view. We’ll have to be content with “only” seeing them from the ground again someday.
We spent a night in Vezelay years ago, near the Basilica. It encouraged us to visit Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the
Pilgrims from Vezelay’s Basilica headed on their
Thank you for this information. I checked the website and they are not offering the guided tours the day we are going to be there. I am hoping that we can still enjoy the abbey.
@rizell, if you want a very good prep for your visit to Vezelay, check out episode 2 ("The Great Thaw") of Kenneth Clark's BBC documentary, "Civilisation." Some would call it dated and fusty TV, but I'd say it provides excellent context and a real feeling for the century during which the abbey was founded, if you have 45 minutes. The same episode also suggests some other, similar churches of the period in the same region, such as Autun, whose tympanum may not be under renovation. We didn't go to Autun (one must make choices) but were very glad we spent an afternoon, night, and morning in Vezelay. Have a good trip.
We had the good fortune to visit both Vezelay and Autun on the same trip. While l liked Vezelay and appreciated it’s place in the history of pilgrimages in the Middle Ages, I LOVED the cathedral in Autun. Both have carvings by Gislebertus, the beautiful stone storyteller, but Autun’s are more accessible being that you can get closer to the intricate detail of the capitals. I bought a coffee table book of Vézelay to bring back home but I carry Autun’s imagery around with me in my heart. I hope you’ll have a chance to see this cathedral on a future visit. “Giselbertus made this”
That is a wonderful story of how disappointment turns into an unexpected and wonderful experience. That is what travel is all about right? My desire to visit the Vezelay Basilica is to visit where Rostrapovich recorded his Bach Cello Suites. He felt the basilica had the best acoustics for which he could make his famous recordings. So long story short. if I visit during restoration can you still tour the interior of the church?
I also just completed my first Camino and would love to learn more about the Camino history in France as I am entertaining doing a Camino segment that starts in either Vezelay or Le Puy.
Thank you for your report.
Yes, you can visit the interior and the crypt containing the Magdalene relics, an important point of veneration for pilgrims on their way to Santiago. They've all been restored previously. Also the modest cloister and most of the grounds.
La Basilique Sainte-Marie-MadeleineView all photos
Amid the fields of sleepy countryside that stretch toward the horizon is the small village of Vézelay, its old stone buildings built upon a hill. The town’s slender walkways and narrow cobblestone streets dodge bakeries and lampposts as they wind upwards to the edifice standing atop the village: Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, a monastic church that dates back to the 9th and 10th centuries.
If you arrive at the right time of day, you’ll see nuns filing into the Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine (Basilica of Mary Magdalene) for service and song. Like the monks who also belong to the church, they are dressed in white robes, calmly moving about the grand and towering space. A Benedictine abbey church, the basilica is decorated with detailed sculptures and great works of Romanesque art and architecture. The columns lining the church’s nave and choir are covered in scenes carved from the Bible.
Vézelay and its church were a key point in the journey for pilgrims passing through to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwest Spain—a factor that put pressure on the church to expand in its early days. Long known as the Abbey of Vézelay, the church came under the title basilica only in 1920.
The history of the basilica has plenty of ups and downs. Relics from Mary Magdalene were brought to Vezelay in 882, items that would provide mystery and drama in coming years. In 1120, a major fire ravaged the nave, and another in 1165. In the early centuries, the church was in the middle of local attacks and revolts, at least in one instance over raised taxes to cover church expansions.
In 1166, it was the site where the exiled Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett, pronounced the solemn condemnation of his king, Henry II. It was also where several key meetings took place during the Second and Third Crusades. Later, in the 1500s, it underwent further damage when the Huguenots came through, and again suffered damage during the French Revolution.
Today, however, the basilica stands fully restored, open every day for the public to wander through and ponder. Make sure to notice how the church’s position takes into consideration the Earth’s orientation with the sun—an architectural detail that floods the nave with a special scattering of light at midday on the summer solstice.
After a millennium’s worth of wear and tear, the basilica underwent major repairs and restoration in the 1800s, and today, it feels pristine. The ceiling soars upwards into the sky, and everywhere you look, your eyes will light upon different religious scenes, which don’t depict sinners and unbelievers in a very flattering light (think: pig snouts and elephant ears). To fully understand the complex range of religious symbolism and imagery in the church would take much dedication and effort — and a very long ladder.
Know Before You Go
The basilica is open every day from 7am to 8pm. You can check the Visitors Center for information on guided tours.
Photo Essay: The Famous Pilgrimage Site of Vézelay
Just 3 hours on the A6 from Paris will bring you (back) to a remarkable era in French religious history. Situated in the Yonne department in Burgundy, Vézelay is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.
Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson
In 860, the hilltop site of Vézelay was donated to the Benedictine monks by Gerard, Count of Roussillon. Eudes, the monastery’s first abbot, claimed to have acquired the body of Saint Mary Magdalene. The authenticity of his claim was confirmed in Papal bulls by of Popes Lucius III, Urban III, and Clement III. By the 12th century, hosts of pilgrims had come to worship at the tomb. “All France,” wrote Hugh of Poitiers, “seems to go to the solemnities of the Magdalene.”
Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson
The Normans destroyed the original church, and construction of the present Basilica of St Magdalene began in 1096 and was dedicated in 1104. The church was rebuilt yet again between 1120-1150. It is a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture, the largest Romanesque church in France and only 10 yards shorter than Notre Dame in Paris.
The Basilica is renowned for its use of light. In particular, the nave was designed to create a spectacular effect twice a year. At midday on the summer solstice, nine pools of sunlight fall upon the exact centre of the nave, forming a path of light leading to the altar. And, at midday on the winter solstice, the pools of light fall exactly on the upper capitals of the north arcade.
Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson
The architecture itself is exceptionally attractive, with more light than most Romanesque interiors and a visual rhythm created by the rows of columns on the piers and the striped arches of the vault. Simply put, it is gorgeous, both inside and out.
Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson
Early on, Vézelay became the starting point of one of the main routes of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. As a pilgrimage church, classic seashell motifs can be found on the walls of the church and throughout the surrounding town.
Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson
Although it is no longer thought that Mary Magdalene’s body is in fact in the church, Vézelay has other claims to fame. Most notably, St. Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade from the steps of the Basilica in 1146, accompanied by King Louis VII of France. A vivid contemporary accounts states that crowd was so large that a large platform was erected on a hill outside the city so that all could hear St. Bernard’s speech. Bernard’s “voice rang out across the meadow like a celestial organ” and, when he finished, the crowd enlisted en masse. They quickly ran out of cloth to make crosses. Bernard is said to have flung off his own robe and began tearing it into strips to make more crosses. Others followed his example and he and his helpers were supposedly still producing crosses as night fell. Then they all set off on crusade.
Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson
Given the enthusiasm that was generated for crusading in Vézelay, Richard the Lionheart and Philip II Augustus returned to the town in 1190 to launch the Third Crusade.
At present, the town is peaceful and it is a lovely place to visit with narrow pedestrian-only streets winding upwards past perfectly preserved medieval houses to the main square and the church. There are views at every turn of the lovely farm fields below.
Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson Vézelay Abbey. Photo: Fern Nesson
View from Basilica TerraceView from the ramparts at Vezelay
Strolling behind the Abbey, you come to the terrace with remnants of the town ramparts and panoramic views across Morvan Regional National Park in Burgundy.
The scene looks like one great patchwork quilt of rolling farmland, smaller villages and vineyards in Burgundy below.
King Philippe Auguste of France and Richard the Lionheart of England, two of the most powerful sovereigns of their time, met here in 1190 to depart on the Third Crusade.
These ancient ramparts are a truly awe inspiring location. So much history, natural beauty and legend to soak in at one truly amazing place.
View over Burgundy from the ramparts of Vezelay Foilage now sprouts from between the stones of the ancient Abbey at Vezelay
In 1267 King St. Louis IX, on a visit to Vézelay, confirms the authenticity of St. Mary Magdalene’s relics that had been questioned since 1260, notably because of the rivalry between Vézelay and St. Maximin in Provence.
- In 1279 the relics of St. Mary Magdalene in St. Maximin are proclaimed to be authentic. Consequently the number of pilgrims to Vézelay falls sharply and rapidly and the abbey enters a period of decline.
- In 1537 Pope Paul III secularizes the abbey: the monks are replaced by a college of 15 secular canons under the authority of an abbot appointed by the king.
- In 1569 Vézelay is occupied and the abbey is thoroughly sacked by the Huguenots.
- In 1760 the abandoned monastery buildings are partially sold and demolished.
- In 1790 the college of canons is abolished and the church – once an abbey church and later a collegiate one - is downgraded into a parish church. The remains of the ancient monastery buildings are sold and razed to the ground.
- In 1793 the sculptures on the outer façade are destroyed.
- In 1819 lightning causes a disastrous fire.
- In 1840 Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, aged twenty-six, is entrusted with vast restoration works on the basilica at the initiative of Prosper Mérimée, then Inspector of Historical Monuments.
- In 1859 the restoration project is completed.
- In 1870 and 1876 another Mary Magdalene relic is offered to the Vézelay church. Pilgrimages resume to some extent.
- In 1920 the Holy See grants the Vézelay church the status of “Basilica”, thereby recognizing its special place in the Church, in Christianity and in History.
- In 1945 – 1950 the monks are back: a small team of Benedictine monks from la Pierre-qui-Vire settle in Vézelay.
- In 1946 a “Crusade for Peace” takes place in Vézelay. 40,000 pilgrims gather to commemorate both the 800th anniversary of St. Bernard’s predication and the end of the Second World War.
- Between 1953 and 1993 Franciscans settle in Vézelay, succeeding the monks from La Pierre-qui-Vire.
- In 1979 the Basilica and the site of Vézelay are added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
- In 1993 the Jerusalem Community in Vézelay is founded at the initiative of Mgr. Defois. The brothers and sisters of the Community are in charge of the Basilica’s liturgical, spiritual and cultural activities.
- In 1994 a diocesan priest is appointed parish priest and rector of the Basilica by Mgr. Defois
- In 1997 a massive restoration project is started.
In 1998 the first internet site – the one that preceded this one- is on line.
In 1999 by a decree of the new Archbishop, Mgr. Gilson, the thirteen villages surrounding the Basilica merge to become one parish.
the first Sound and Light Show “Vézelay s’enflamme” (literally: “Vézelay
the renovation of the basilica’s roof, which had been under way since 1997,
a new positive organ is inaugurated in the chapel of the cloister
an archaeological exploration of the site of the ancient cloister is conducted
A little history of Sainte-Madeleine basilica in Vezelay
Located on the road to Compostela, Vézelay was founded by Girart de Roussillon in the middle of the 9th century. This lord called monks here, then they raised a monastery, dedicated by pope John VIII.
The Middle-Ages was a golden age for our abbey! Since 1050, it housed saint Madeleine's relics and became a very important place of pilgrimage.
Believers and merchants used to stop here, on the hard road leading to Compostela!
Destroyed during the Hundred Years War, Vézelay welcomed Protestants in 1557. But it was plundered during wars of Religion and was almost razed during the French Revolution.
Well, let's see that basilica! I told you it was founded in the 9th century and that the pilgrimage was famous thanks to miraculous relics.
The crowd of pilgrims was so huge they needed to extend the church, between 1096 and 1104! 16 years later, a terrible fire destroyed the nave and killed more than one thousand pilgrims.
The nave was re-raised, the choir and transept completed in 1215. The Romanesque façade dates back to 1150, transformed by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century.
You know what? They discovered other relics of Magdalene, in Provence: in basilica of la Sainte-Baume. Good heavens! Impossible! Anyway, Vézelay's pilgrimages spaced out overnight.