Every travel destination contains the potential for a new experience. A new food. A new sight. A new way of life. But what of the destinations that offer an old way of life? What of the places that teach us how we have become what we are today? Amid the world class eateries and wineries of Burgundy sit two touchpoints to France’s medieval past – the abbeys at Vézelay and Fontenay. Seeing them through the eyes of the occupants of that time, gives the savvy traveler a deeper appreciation for the world of today.
Measuring just 10 yards shorter than Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral, Vézelay’s Basilica Church of St. Mary Magdalene is France’s largest Romanesque church. Its sculpted capitals and portal include several majestic semicircular arch decorative surfaces (tympana). The church is a masterpiece of Burgundian Romanesque art and architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979.
Vézelay abbey was originally overseen by the great Benedictine abbey at Cluny. The tomb of St. Magdalen, at St-Maximin in Provence, was opened and her body removed to Vézelay, giving the basilica its name. Afterwards, the tomb of the saint was visited in by a number of illustrious pilgrims making their way to the Spanish church of Santiago de Compostela. “All France,” wrote Hugh of Poitiers, “seems to go to the solemnities of the Magdalen.”
French Huguenots sacked the basilica during the 16th century Wars of Religion, and the relics of St. Magdalen were destroyed. In 1840, Viollet le Duc, whose previous work included the cathedrals of Laon, Amiens and Paris’s Notre-Dame, restored the basilica. The future Cardinal Bernadou, Archbishop of Sens arranged for the transfer in 1876 of a relic of the saint which Pope Martin IV had given to the Chapter of Sens.
What to See at Vézelay
As you make your way up the hill from the car park to the basilica, it is easy to imagine yourself as one of the thousands of pilgrims past. The few narrow streets leading to the top are lined with places to eat or rest, just like centuries ago. It’s tempting to stop after a long journey, and today’s travelers are no different. So as you enjoy a quick lunch or snack, or just a glass of world renowned Burgundian red or white wine, think of the pilgrims. Like you today, they trod these vsame final few steps to this remarkable destination.
The basilica is renowned for the extraordinary Romanesque sculptures on the tympana. Take a moment to absorb these works of art, as well as the decorated pillar tops. The central tympanum depicts the Mission of the Apostles, or the preaching the Good News that Christ commanded at Pentecost. The north tympanum illustrates the pilgrims to Emmaus and the Ascension of Christ, while the south tympanum portrays various scenes from the Nativity. Imagine how resplendent they were to the pilgrims who faced more than a month of walking on their way to Santiago de Compostella.
The measurements of the church were carefully chosen to create a spectacular effect in the nave twice a year. At midday on the summer solstice, nine pools of sunlight fall upon the exact center of the nave, forming a path of light leading to the altar. At midday on the winter solstice, the pools of light fall on the upper capitals of the north arcade. So if you are lucky enough to visit on either of these annual events, you are in for a real treat.
Next, exit the basilica towards the south. Walk through the wrought-iron gate splitting the ivy-covered wall onto the broad plaza overlooking the fields to the south. Envision yourself here in July, 1190 as part of Richard the Lion Hearted’s retinue to meet King Phillip Augustus and embark on the Third Crusade. Imagine the thousands of knights in the valley below, waiting for fates unknown in the Holy Land. The colors, the sounds, the smells of of a grand adventure play out before you. That all happened on the very lands you now gaze upon.
That same Benedictine abbey at Cluny that oversaw the construction played a part in the creation of our next destination, the Romanesque abbey of Fontenay (Abbaye de Fontenay). It was founded at the end of the 11th century by Cistercian monks that broke away from the Cluny abbey.
The Cistercians felt the Benedictine monks had become too worldly and were no longer staying true to Saint Benedict’s edicts. These pronounced that a monk should divide his day equally between prayer, study and manual labor, living a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. Fontenay was one of the four founding houses of the order, and was built to reflect this dedication to manual labor.
The Cistercian monks moved to Fontenay Abbey in 1130. Nine years later, the Bishop of Norwich fled to Fontenay to escape persecution, and helped finance the construction of the church with his wealth. The church was consecrated in 1147 by Pope Eugene III. By 1200 the monastic complex was complete, serving as many as 300 monks. In 1259, King Louis exempted the Abbey from all taxes. Ten years later the abbey became a royal abbey.
In 1359, the Abbey was pillaged by the armies of King Edward III of England during the Hundred Years’ War, and was further damaged during the Wars of Religion in late 16th century. In 1745, the refectory was destroyed. The abbey was seized in 1789 during the French revolution, and ceased to function as a religious center. In 1791, the site was auctioned off and it became a paper mill, run by the Montgolfier brothers.
Later it was adapted for other industrial purposes until purchased by Edouard Anyard of Lyon, who restored its structures to their original condition. It remains in the Anyard family to this day, open to the public for all to visit. It stands as a sober, yet stunning, reminder of the reductive beauty of Cistercian architecture.
In 1981 the abbey became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The buildings are pristinely restored and the grounds are beautifully landscaped. Like Benedictine abbeys, Cistercian abbeys featured a dormitory for sleep, a cloister for strolling, a Chapter House for the monks’ morning meeting, and a caldarium, or warming room where the monks could read and transcribe. Unlike the Benedictines, the Cistercians admitted lay brothers, housed in a separate wing. These men were required to adhere to most of the rules of the order but their lives were slightly less strict. Lay brothers could never be ordained or hold office.
The abbey church, built from 1139 to 1147, is the oldest Cistercian church remaining in France and one of the best examples of the Cistercian Romanesque architectural style. Stairs in the south transept lead up to the monks’ dormitory, a long room where they slept communally on straw mattresses, separated by low partitions. They slept fully dressed, both for warmth (the room was not heated) and to be ready for midnight services. It has a beautiful roof of hand-hewn beams of Spanish chestnut, dating from the late 15th century.
Next to the dormitory stairs, a small door leads into the beautiful cloister. Here the monks spent most of their free time, usually reading, working or praying. Some capitals are decoratively carved, but only with restrained stiff-leaf designs.
Ease of the cloister is the Chapter House, where the monks gathered each day to hear a chapter from St. Benedict’s Rule and conduct the business of the day. The room is rib-vaulted and has two small annexes at each end; one was probably a sacristry and the other a parlor.
The Cistercians were recognized for their expertise in hydro engineering. On the south side of the complex is a water-powered forge, reconstructed in 2008. The monks extracted iron ore from the hill above the monastery, then used the forge to make iron tools to be sold in the region. According to a wall plaque, this was the first metallurgical factory in Europe and the place of invention of the hydraulic hammer, and the basis of industrial manufacturing in Europe.
Imagine your life here, either as a monk or as a lay brother. You are completely isolated, completely immersed in your religious life. Each day is the same routine as yesterday, and the same as tomorrow will be. How do you deal with the monotony? Indeed, your religious faith must be strong to keep yourself devoted to your life of sacrifice and scarcity. Is this something we today can even imagine?
No matter what role you assume in these mini dramas about Vézelay and Fontenay, recognize that they were important in setting the foundations for western civilization. Their historical significance is immense, and worth a visit on any trip to Burgundy.