Years ago, a good friend told me about an experience that transformed his life, a provocative experience that, once shared, also transformed my way of thinking and shaped the direction of my vocational life to this day.

When my friend was a young man—a recent graduate of architecture school—he visited the Pyramids of Giza for the first time.  He found the enormous, ancient structures so awe-inspiring, so breathtaking that suddenly he found himself thinking, “If this is the answer, what then was the question?” 

Now, I am both a historical architect and an Episcopal priest, and often encounter quite a few ancient and awe-inspiring structures on my own.  When I do, my friend’s enticing question comes to mind.  A case in point – consider the magnificent great portal at Vézelay Abbey – a 12th-century, Christian monastic place of worship in the Burgundy region of France.  What was the question that inspired such a concrete, extraordinary answer as this?

To begin with, Vézelay was a Benedictine/Cluniac monastery with roots extending back to the 8th century CE.  By the 11th century, the abbey claimed to have the relics of Mary Magdalene, whom tradition believes was a close friend of Jesus of Nazareth and the first person to witness Christ’s resurrection.  Tradition also describes her as one whom Christ “healed of evil spirits and infirmities” (Luke 8:2) and consequently is revered by many as the patron saint of the penitent.  As a result, large numbers of people made the pilgrimage to Vézelay and asked for Mary Magdalene’s blessing; so many, in fact, that construction began in 1096 on a large basilica to properly accommodate the holy relics and the large crowds visiting the site.

While Vézelay was a pilgrimage destination in its own right, it also served as a starting point for one of the most revered pilgrimages in medieval Europe – the Camino de Santiago.  Second only to Rome and Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain was the shrine of James the Greater, an apostle of Jesus, and for centuries, Christians from across Europe made the pilgrimage to this sacred place in large numbers.  One of four major routes through France to Santiago began in Vézelay.

Vézelay also played a prominent role in the life of western Christianity for more than three hundred years, as it hosted a number of important historical events.  In 1146, the Second Crusade to the Holy Land was launched from Vézelay with Bernard of Clairvaux preaching to the inspired crowds.  A short time later in 1166, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, while exiled in France, used the pulpit at Vézelay to issue a threat to excommunicate King Henry II of England and his advisors as part of their ongoing quarrel.  Then in 1190, King Richard the Lion-Hearted of England and King Philip II Augustus of France met at Vézelay and from here launched the Third Crusade to the Holy Land.  And in 1217, Francis of Assisi reportedly founded the first French community of the Friars Minor at Vézelay.  Clearly, as the great portal was being designed and carved around the year 1130, Vézelay had established itself as a significant, cosmopolitan, spiritual center in the context and culture of medieval Christian Europe that demanded its architecture be sufficiently sophisticated to reflect its role and prominence.

The great portal of Vézelay is located within the narthex of the basilica, the central portal of three that provide access into the nave.  Approaching the great portal for the first time, one immediately is struck by the sheer size of the composition – it is massive.  Its overall height is nearly 40 feet – as tall as a 4-story building – and its width approaches 30 feet.  The carved stonework is punctuated by two door openings, each nearly 20 feet high by 10 feet wide.  Directly above the door openings is an enormous, semi-circular, carved stone tympanum, which dominates the composition.  Yet in spite of being stone, the tympanum seems to levitate overhead, due in large measure to the energetic poses of the carved human figures.

Contrary to other Romanesque sculpture which often depicts human figures in flat and static poses, Vézelay’s figures are vibrant, brimming with energy and enthusiasm, invoking T.S. Eliot’s words, “It moves perpetually in its stillness.”  The central figure is Christ, majestically reaching more than 10 feet in height, in spite of his seated position.  He is enveloped by an almond-shaped mandorla – the traditional symbol representing a sacred moment transcending time and space.  Gathered around him are the twelve, life-sized apostles, with six on each side.  Shooting forth from the fingers of Christ’s outstretched arms and striking the head of each apostle are what seem to be beams of divine power, infusing the apostles with energy, solidarity and wisdom.  Despite being damaged from centuries of vandalism, the vitality emanating from the carvings still is obvious.  The full, interactive postures of each figure, along with the swirling pleats and patterns in the fabric of their robes all contribute to the exuberance of the scene.

Encircling above Christ and his apostles and in the horizontal lintel below are a series of small, carved vignettes depicting people whose lives are transformed by the Gospel message, as well as people in far-off lands who are yet to learn of Christ.  Some are interesting caricatures with giant ears and dog-like faces indicating that, at the time, there still existed civilizations largely unknown by and mysterious to western Europeans.

Surrounding all of these figures in the outer, semicircular band of stone molding called an archivolt are the signs of the zodiac and months of the year indicating that this theophany, this incident of divine intervention, was not simply a product of creative imagination, but actually took place on this earthly plane of human existence within the sphere of time and space. 

So then, what does it mean?

Obviously, the scale of the great portal is meant to impress and inspire all who see it.  Its immensity and imagery promise those who approach, that by passing through its doors, the space found on the other side will be extraordinary – incomparable in size and appearance, and the activities that take place there will be mystical and life-changing.  After all, the great portal is an entrance to sacred space and the medieval mind believed that each church is an earthly image of Heaven.  Yet in spite of its majestic and otherworldly appearance, the great portal does not seem threatening or discriminating.  In fact, it seems inviting, extending a warm welcome to those who come near.  It brings to mind the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” (Matthew 23:37)

Perhaps, another helpful interpretation can be drawn from a similar portal of the Medieval Period, albeit one found in an epic poem of world literature.  In the early 14th century, Dante Alighieri completed his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, and in it he describes the inscription carved above the entrance to Hell, which reads, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”  While certainly Dante’s portal to Hell is the antithesis of Vézelay, it helps underline the intent for which the great portal was created.  Rather than words of warning and pending despair, the great portal of Vezelay offers encouragement and hope.  It was designed to awaken and arouse all those who see it: Be defiantly hopeful, all who enter here.  The love of God will make you strong!  Just as Christ, the Incarnation of God, transformed the lives of his apostles, the same transformation is available to you, if you pass through this portal and commit to living the Christian life.

For centuries, art historians have pondered the meaning of the great portal.  What are these magnificent carvings meant to represent?  What stories are they trying to tell?  Some believe the great portal represents the day of Pentecost, as described in the “Acts of the Apostles.”  Others suggest it depicts Christ’s mission to the apostles, as found in the Gospels, and was used to justify and inspire the crusades which were launched from Vézelay.  One argued the carvings serve as a defense of the addition of the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed, when in 1098, the Western Church asserted that the Holy Spirit proceeds simultaneously from the Father and the Son, against which the Eastern Church vehemently disagreed and the split between the two churches widened.  In the end, these interpretations seem to focus primarily on the literal meaning of the carvings, rather than the purpose for which the great portal was created.

Good spiritual architecture encourages people to engage the mystery it encapsulates.  While the design of the great portal of Vezelay depicts an incident from the pages of Christian scripture, it also points to a divine reality that transcends time and history, but nevertheless exists in the present moment.  It reminds you and me that unseen forces larger than anything humanly possible are undergirding the existence of daily life and we are more than mere spectators.  In truth, we are participants in this epic drama as well.

So, what was the purpose of the great portal of Vezelay?  What was the question that inspired such a concrete, extraordinary answer as this?

Certainly, the great portal was meant to be more than simply a doorway.  The carvings were intended to serve a purpose beyond mere decoration.  Vézelay, because of its prominence and popularity, was positioned to influence a great many people from all ranks of medieval society and the great portal was created to encourage them to discover and deepen their commitment to Christ and his church.  Like an icon from the Orthodox tradition, the great portal is intended to be a means to the end, but not the end itself.  Its purpose is to draw people toward it and away from the profane, secular world; to usher them through a physical, mental and spiritual transformation; to adequately prepare them to enter the sacred space that lies ahead, and then direct their attention beyond the portal itself to the world of God beyond.

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