The role of the Visitor’s centre in Vezelay

Today’s visitor is often hurried and lacking in the means of interpretation in front of a heritage which, in spite of this, arrests him strongly. He needs a dynamic and sensitive approach, rather than one that seems immediately informative and knowledgeable, in order to be able to enter into personal communication with the architecture.

A place of meditation and interpretation

In the silence of the building, the awakening senses ‘operate’ a meeting with the work of art. However, this meeting requires an accessibility of spirit that would be more easily reached if good conditions are present

Therefore, an introduction, or a conclusion to ‘the experience of seeing’ Romanesque art proves a deciding factor :

  • In order to discover or re-discover what ‘orientated’ and ‘to orient oneself’ means.
  • In order to understand a symbolic language whose meaning cannot be easily grasped without meditation
  • In order to provide oneself with the essentials of the medieval world and of its aesthetic, within the perspective of enlightening the characteristics of today’s world

As it would have been be impossible to carry out these tasks within the Basilica itself, or in the open air or in a noisy public place, it was necessary to find another place. And this is how in 1994, a house right in the very heart of the little town, not far from the Basilica, became the Visitor’s Centre.

Text written for the opening reception at the Visitor’s Centre on the 25th of March 2003

détail de sculpture du grand tympan de la basilique de Vézelay

Our cultural heritage is deeply wounded. These wounds manifest themselves in the tears that pour from the heart of Beirut, of Baghdad, of Kabul and of Lhasa, in the destruction of Buddhas, the smashing of icons and in the devastation of temples of prayer. They are manifest in bitter and fierce campaigns that deny our ancestral learning in order to profit blind opportunism. They are manifest in the great columns of people in exodus. The wounds are deep because they go right into the bodies of all peoples, and leave them maimed, formless, and voiceless, abandoned to survival, and to hatred.

How many years will it take to rebuild it? How many human vocations will it take to bring these centres of conscience, dreams and shared destiny back to life? How much patience, how many treasures will it take to re-establish them, and start again to spread their message?

Daniel sur chapiteau à la Basilique de Vézelay

In these times of crisis and of murderous folly, our national heritage rises up like a stumbling block, holding us back from the steep slope that leads to foolhardiness, oblivion and somnolence. Far from being merely a treasure that we must preserve at all costs, or a ‘must-see’ place, it reveals to us, first and foremost, that it is the body and sacred countenance of all people, their clothing of dignity. As it confronts all the modern methods of execution, it reveals itself as an active part of our culture that asks the fundamental question of being. In this way, it becomes the indispensable nourishment to the everyday visitor, a kind of viaticum to send them safely on their way, to the end of their journey.

What if the mission/vocation of our cultural heritage consists most importantly in a step forwards towards the sacred ground of our roots, towards the heart of a kind of awe or compassion that is capable of raising as well as accompanying the question of meaning ?

And so another question arises, one which we really feel we need to ask ourselves, one that is even more pertinent to those who are involved with the presentation and understanding of such a heritage. Do we cultivate these testimonies of art and of thought whilst sufficiently bearing in mind the awareness that the crowd of visitors of today is a gathering of people who are on their way towards an interior and spiritual land?

Does the enhancement and presentation of the most precious sites of cultural heritage always offer people from every walk of life a place of self-interrogation and fraternization? Are they, in some way, stopping places that incite their visitors to change their attitudes, and that allow them to start afresh on the road of Peace?

Hélène Ramin
Artistic director of the Visitor’s centre