Vézelay, the day when light works miracles

Vézelay, the day when light works miracles. Whether one is a believer or not, practicing or not, that day, at Vézelay, everyone is eager to believe it. There is no need to be a giant-breasted frog, an anchorite touched by grace, or even a pilgrim thrown on the road to Compostela to hear himself mumbling, almost without his knowledge, this anguished prayer, this feverish incantation of the lambda tourist who repeats stubbornly: "As long as it's nice!"

June 21, day of the summer solstice,

in truth, anyone implores heaven. A particular faith attacks the one who approaches the commune of Vézelay, in the Yonne, this "boat that has dropped anchor", as the writer Paul Claudel said, believing among the believers: a faith which leads to believe that someone one up there will manage so that the lighting is at its zenith, at the appointed hour. At that time, when solar noon will come (14 hours to our watches), the "eternal hill" will deliver once again its lesson of aesthetics. The same every year, since ten centuries.
This afternoon, the air is boiling, the sky stretched a beautiful cerulean blue. Wheat round roasts while waiting for the reaper, and the vine, which ripples over this hunchbacked country, is already reddish.

"The light will be there,"

souffle Christopher Kelly, relieved. This is not his first solstice, far from it, but he would not miss it for anything in the world. This Englishman came here about fifteen years ago, an 21 June precisely. And what he lived that day probably explains that he never left. It works to the Visitor's House, an association created by enthusiasts who offer the most curious to take the time to decipher what the architecture of the city, its sacred symbolism, its mysteries still intact.

But no question of lingering for the moment ...

The midday sun does not wait, and it is time to take the hard climb to the entrance of the basilica dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Once up there, we first enter the dark narthex, the vestibule where pilgrims used to pack their bundles. No time to be hypnotized by the extraordinary central tympanum that welcomed them, with its majestic Christ dressed in a spiral stone drapery, and its finely carved half-vault which recounts, like a medieval ephemeris, agricultural work punctuating the year. In the church, the great Romanesque nave, a beautiful corridor of perfect proportions (sixty meters long by nine wide and eighteen high), is already bathed in a vaporous glow, as if to prepare the retina of the visitor.

The perspective of columns, capitals and two-tone arches,

everything here concurs in guiding the gaze towards the depths, towards this choir of Gothic style with an already airy whiteness. It remains only to stand in the axis, in the center of the nave, and to wait feverishly for the big moment: the one where the purest rays dart on the southern flank of the basilica, strike as expected each of the side windows and cross them with so much force that they change into glittering halos that come to rest like angels on the dark ground. At the same moment puddles of clarity seem to sweep from the sky. In all, nine white spots on the blotter of the pavement. At midday, each shine aligns perfectly to draw a rectilinear rosary from the entrance of the nave to that of the choir. "To attend this show is to perceive the genius of Vézelay," murmur Christopher Kelly.


The Vézelay hill is full of impressive vaulted cellars where pilgrims from the Middle Ages came from all over Europe © Gaël Turine

It is also to meet his enigma:

How did builders of the Middle Ages conceive such a feat? The nave, the oldest part of the basilica, was built between 1120 and 1140, after the fire of a previous building. Orientation west-east, from sunset to the east. Measurements corresponding to the precepts of the divine proportion dear to Pythagoras for an effect of total harmony. And above all, permanent games between shade and natural light. Throughout the year, through the sun's rays, this place moves and moves. Until the summer solstice, which allows the prodigy of the alignment for a few days, around the 21 June.

But that's not all…

Because the star of the day also throws its arrows around the winter solstice: the shaving sun arrives almost in tapinois, and poses with an infinite delicacy on each of the high capitals of the nave. At Easter, it is yet another story: spots of light whiten with a radical precision the feet of each column, for an obvious symbolic allusion to the washing ritual of the feet. "All the design is ordered around the reception of this solar light, which translates an incredible knowledge of the geometry, the astronomy, the movement of the seasons as well as a great mastery of the architectural knowledge", analysis Véronique Feugère, another exegete officiating at the Visitor's House.