The Codex Calixtinus (12th century) makes mention of Vézelay as one of the four main points of departure in France, where pilgrims gathered on their way to Santiago. Nowadays, this is hard to imagine. When you walk up the hill through the main street to the famous basilica, all you will find is peace and quiet. That is if you visit the town outside the high season, when busloads of tourists are drawn to Vézelay for a flying visit.
Not really impressive either is the tympanum on the front facade, which is only a copy. The original was severely damaged during the French Revolution and -until recently- had been carelessly placed against the side of the basilica.
It is only when you enter the basilica that you begin to understand why, even today, Vézelay is a special spiritual place for so many. The Romanesque tympanum in the portal is unique in its kind. It portrays the proclamation of the faith, after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (of which Mary Magdalene is believed to have been the first witness; the basilica is named after her). Jesus is beautifully depicted in the middle, while he is blessing his apostles and instructing them to go and proclaim the faith among the people. Below Jesus stands John the Baptist with the Lamb of God.
Sometimes the large interior doors of the basilica are open. Then you will see the light of the priest's choir behind the half-dark vestibule (narthex).
A few days a year – around the 21st of June – the narthex and the priest's choir are connected by a path of light on the floor that falls down from the precisely positioned windows above.
Six months later, around the 21st of December, the Romanesque capitols are highlighted in the same particular way.
The two solstices are symbolized by John the Baptist (Feast: 24 June) and John the Apostle (Feast: 27 December).
Thus, the basilica is one huge frame story and an invitation not to be missed to “go to the light”. That makes it a real milestone for many on their pilgrimage to Santiago.
Since 1979, the basilica and hill of Vézelay are designated World Heritage sites.
The Maison du Visiteur, halfway the main street of Vézelay, shows and tells the fascinating story of the basilica: discover how the universe and the Christian faith were represented in stone many centuries ago.
If you like, you can receive a pilgrim blessing before you set out in the morning. This takes place right after the Lauds, the mainly sung service -in the basilica or a nearby chapel- by the brothers and sisters of the Fraternités de Jérusalem.
Then contact the volunteer of the pilgrims hostel at the Centre Sainte-Madeleine (diagonally opposite the basilica).