A path of light

A path of light

It has often been said that the main building material used in Vézelay was light itself. By controlling space the architecture of the building controls light. What is more, it uses light to the benefit of a particular project, submitting it to the will of the builders who wanted to make of the sanctuary the archetype of a pilgrimage church.

The visitor entering the basilica is bound to experience–both physically and spiritually-  a journey from darkness to light. For believers it is  the very experience of conversion, a way of renewing the vows of one’s baptism, the essential meaning of a pilgrimage. The pilgrims who enter the Vézelay sanctuary take the final step of  their spiritual journey. By going physically through the three parts of the building, they ultimately achieve the plenitude of meaning that they sought.

 Light in Vézelay’s architecture

The building’s design and its height made it possible for Vézelay’s builders somehow to capture light and distribute it in space, in the different spaces of the building.

The narthex is exceptionally wide in Vézelay. It is a sort of pre-nave serving as a transition space between the outside world and the sanctuary itself although, from a liturgical point of view, it is part of the latter.

In the narthex the builders have allowed little light in. The high narrow windows of the façade have been added during the Gothic period. Otherwise the only lighting is indirect, coming solely from the aisles and the tribunes over them and diffusing a soft, subdued light.

When there is little sunshine, the narthex is even in the twilight.

Visitors or pilgrims who find themselves in such a confined space will quite naturally turn to the great portal in search for light and when the portal opens, they are necessarily prompted to go further.

The long Romanesque nave is full of a blond, warm light coming through the clerestory windows. The beautiful alternation  of light-and dark-coloured stones and the powerful architecture of the piers and arches create a visual rhythm further accentuated by the horizontal lines of the delicately sculpted, skilfully proportioned decoration. All these elements together make of the nave an authentic path of light and create a unique momentum. The urge to go further and complete the final step of the pilgrimage is irresistible.

At the end of the journey, at the end of the nave, the change is sudden, i.e. the horizontal lines of the Romanesque nave are succeeded by the elegant vertical lines of the immaculate choir’s Gothic architecture and visitors suddenly find themselves enveloped by a flood of  light.

The Gothic architectural technique made it indeed possible to have thinner walls in which large windows can be opened so that light can bounce around from pillar to pillar, travel from chapel to chapel and caress the soft immaculate stones used for building the choir.

In Vézelay the kind of material necessary for that purpose had to come from a distant place but the builders accepted the challenge, so great was  their desire to create what they saw as an Assumption of light in the most Holy place of their sanctuary.    

Light in Vézelay’s sculpture

Sculpture no doubt plays a role in the symbolic journey from darkness to light that in Vézelay is like an appeal to conversion. That is why, in the interpretation of some of the capitals, the placement by the sculptor of the different figures in reference to the sunlight must be taken into account. The best examples are the capital representing Saint Eustace (or Saint Hubert) and the famous capital of the Mystic Mill"

The former (St. Eustace), according to the “Golden legend” (a collection of hagiographies written by Jacobus de Voragine around 1260) represents the conversion of the saint. Right in the middle of his favourite pastime the noble hunter is approached by God: he encounters a stag whose  antlers are suddenly illuminated by a cross of light while his dog is pointing and his horse rears up. The main structural element of the scene – a scene that is particularly lively and full of action – is the dog leash which divides the capital into two zones: a zone of darkness where the rider finds himself and the zone where the stag appears which is permanently under the light coming from a lateral window.

The conversion of Saint Eustace is thus concretely represented as being a passage from darkness to light,  from one world into another.

Two different worlds also coexist in the Mystic Mill. The scene has been described by Suger who had it represented on a stained-glass window in Saint-Denis.

The figure on the left, pouring grain into a mill, is Moses, a figure from the Old Testament; the figure on the right is Saint Paul, representing the New Testament. One is in the shadow, the other is in the light. What is above all remarkable is that the wheel of the mill, the perfect form that gives it motion, is the element that is placed in full light. The sculptor has turned it slightly so that all day long it can take full advantage of the light coming from the south. The mill represents Christ, the Light of the World, who has come to draw the substance of the ancient law and renew it through the message of the Gospels. 

Light in the church

It has also been said that the church of Vézelay, full of the blond, warm light that Paul Claudel loved so much and mentioned so often was an image of the Church, that in Vézelay more than anywhere else the stone church represents the Universal Church.

This is exactly what Saint Augustine said of Mary Magdalene herself and so it is easier to understand why she, the Holy woman, is not represented in the medieval church of Vézelay. It is the building itself  that represents her every morning  in the flood of light that symbolizes Christ’s Resurrection, the founding event of which she was the privileged first witness. And what the great tympanum tells us about mankind receiving strength from the Holy Spirit to help it start its journey towards God is nothing else but an invitation to enter in the light of Vézelay, in glory and in peace.

A cosmic church

 It is not enough for Vézelay to play with light within its walls. Being the ultimate  Temple among all Temples it is symbolically placed at the heart of the universe to best bring it together, sum it up and sanctify it. Such is the story told by the great tympanum with its representation of the two universal dimensions: space with the presence of the different peoples of the world and time with the calendar. Such is also the wonderful story told by the extraordinary participation of the building in the cosmic cycle of the sun.

 When the monks who built the Vézelay sanctuary determined its structure and its height, they managed to place the clerestory windows so that the light coming through them could create luminous spots on the walls and the pavement of the nave. At midday on the summer solstice (June 21), nine perfectly aligned pools of light fall exactly on the centre and in the axis of the nave thus creating a path of light to the altar.  At midday on the winter solstice (December 21), the pools of light fall on the upper capitals of the northern wall with perfect regularity.

 Such is light in Vézelay: cosmic, universal, the light of life and faith, light  becoming prayer, transcending beauty and therefore so moving and so rich in meaning.