Holy Pilgrimage Town: Vézelay, Church and Hill

A small hill lies in the Bourgogne region of Central France. The Medieval townscape extends beside the road and stretches across the hill.
This is the town of Vézelay. On top of the hill stands St. Madeleine, a church much frequented by Christian pilgrims.

St. Madeleine was constructed in the 10th century and is believed to hold the relics of Mary Magdalene. For this reason this place became known as a revered place of the Holy Spirit. Its interior tympanum is decorated with a large sculpture illustrating the scenes from the Pentecost, with a figure of Jesus giving revelations to his apostles in the middle.

St. Mary Magdalene witnessed the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in medieval times her relics were highly prized. St. Madeleine Church drew many devout Christians from all over Europe to pay homage to the sacred relics. In the midst of turmoil, people in the medieval period channelled their religious passion to going on pilgrimage.

This movement led people to form and launch the Crusades. People sought to regain the Holy Land of Jerusalem which was then ruled by the Muslims. The Crusader Knights saw St. Mary Magdalene as an inspiration for their campaign, for she was said to have been expelled from Jerusalem herself.

On the Easter of 1146 tens of thousands of knights assembled at St. Madeleine, each crying God wills it! and then embarked on the Crusades to Jerusalem. St Madeleine Church became a point of departure for Crusaders but also Pilgrims starting their trek to the Vatican and the Holy sites in Spain.

Scallop shells adorn the path in front of the church. It was an emblem of Saint James the Great and hence became a symbol of Pilgrimage and showing the way to the Holy sites. One of the great pilgrim destinations was Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where St. James is enshrined.
Many houses which were used to accommodate such pilgrims still remain in the town of Vézelay today.

An expert of historical architecture Dr. Michel Colette shows the basement of a private house. The basement has many levels. It remains in its original shape since it was built, but it is now used as a wine cellar. Most houses in Vézelay have similar basement facilities.

In the Middle Ages a great number of pilgrims flocked to this town and there was not enough space to accommodate all in the houses. People spread straw on the floor of such spaces and sheltered around 50-100 people at a time. At the church today pilgrims receive blessings and the protection of God. The Holy Journey still starts from here in the town of Vézelay.

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