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The Basilique Ste-Madeleine second only to Notre Dame in size

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
November 15th, 2012
Catholic Online (

The Basilique Ste-Madeleine or Basilica Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Vézelay is the largest Romanesque church in France. It is only 10 yards shorter than the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Reportedly guarding the relics of St. Mary Magdalene, Vézelay was a major medieval pilgrimage destination and saw the launch of the Second and Third Crusades.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) The majority of the church's construction dates back to the 12th Century. The church has a Romanesque nave and Gothic choir, both full of light. The narthex is an impressive 4,000 square feet, nearly rivaling the Notre-Dame.

The church's basilica is also famed for its remarkable Romanesque sculptures that adorn the tympanums and capitals. There is also a beautiful view of Vézelay's lush valleys and rolling hills from the terrace behind the church.

An amalgamation of Romanesque, Gothic and 19th-century work, the west front is not nearly as interesting as the treasures inside. Built around 1150 in the Romanesque style, it was given a Gothic central gable and south tower in the 13th century. Restored in 1840 by Viollet-le-Duc, the builder also added a Romanesque-style tympanum of the Last Judgment to the central portal.

The spacious narthex or porch of the church contains three richly sculptured portals, dating from about 1115. The great central tympanum depicts the Mission of the Apostles, or the preaching the Good News that Christ commanded at Pentecost. In the center is a large figure of Christ seated within an almond-shaped halo. Bolts of lightning -- or either rays of light shoot out from Christ's hands and hit the apostles in the heads.

Providing a fascinating insight into the medieval worldview and popular legends of the time, the inner archivolt around the tympanum and the lintel below are populated with all the people of the world who will hear the message of Christ. These include the "Monstrous Race" of foreign lands, pictured as people with giant ears.

The pilgrims' route around the church is indicated by the majestic flowers over the north door. The north tympanum depicts the pilgrims to Emmaus and the Ascension of Christ, while the south tympanum depicts various scenes from the Nativity.

The nave, also constructed in the 12th century, is one of the oldest parts of the church. Its architecture is exceptionally attractive, with more light than most Romanesque interiors.

The measurements of the church were chosen to create a spectacular effect in the nave twice a year. Nine pools of light fall upon the center of the nave, precisely at noon on the summer solstice. This forms a path of light leading to the altar. At midday on the winter solstice, the pools of light rest on the upper capitals of the north arcade.

The vast majority of biblical capitals illustrate the Old Testament, with John the Baptist and the story of Lazarus and Dives being the only New Testament themes represented.

But the most famous capital at Vezelay combines the two: known as the Mystic Mill, it shows Moses grinding grain, which symbolizes the Old Testament into flour - the New Testament, which Paul solemnly collects in a sack.

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