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, at the summer solstice everyone really wants 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,

Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene of Vézelay, the day when the light works miracles
Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene of Vézelay

In truth, anyone implores heaven. A particular faith attacks the one who approaches the town of Vézelay, in the Yonne, this "boat that has dropped anchor", as the writer Paul Claudel said, believing among the believers: a faith that leads one 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.

Light at the summer solstice

"The light will be there,"

Christopher Kelly breathes, relieved. It's not his first solstice, far from it, but he wouldn't miss it for the world. This Englishman arrived here about fifteen years ago, on June 21. And what he experienced that day probably explains why he never left.

He works at the Visitor's House, an association created by enthusiasts who invite the most curious to take the time to decipher what the architecture of the city is, its sacred symbolism, its still entire mysteries.

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.

Arrived up there, one enters first in the dark narthex, vestibule where the pilgrims could once leave their bundle. No time to be hypnotized by the extraordinary central tympanum which welcomed them, with its majestic Christ clothed in a spiral stone drapery, and its half-vault finely carved which recounts, like a medieval ephemeride, the 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,

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

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 light seem to surge from the sky. In all, nine white spots on the blotter of the paving. In the middle of the day, each shine is aligned perfectly so as to trace a rectilinear rosary going from the entrance of the nave to that of the choir. “To attend this show is to perceive the genius of Vézelay”, murmurs Christopher Kelly.

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 especially, permanent games between shadow 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 shaven sun comes then almost in tapinois, and arises with an infinite delicacy on each of the high capitals of the nave.

At Easter, this is yet another story: gleaming spots whiten the feet of each column with radical precision, for an obvious symbolic allusion to the washing ritual of the feet.

“The whole design is organized around the reception of this solar light, which translates an incredible knowledge of geometry, astronomy, the movement of the seasons as well as a great mastery of architectural knowledge”, analyzes Véronique Feugère, other exegete officiating at the Visitor's House.