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Category Archives: Vezelay

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In 1037 a new abbot was elected at Vézelay abbey in Burgundy. Abbot Geoffroy brought with him the Cluniac reform of the Benedictine order and the cult of Mary Magdalene. Miracles began to take place and soon large numbers of pilgrims began to attend. Within a short period of time it was declared that the actual relics of the saint existed in the crypt of the abbey.

Given that there was an established cult of Mary Magdalene’s relics at Ephesus and that there seemed no previously recorded account of how the relics had reached the Burgundian abbey, his claim was contentious.

Geoffroy himself, acknowledged this, writing that “Many have wondered how it was possible that the body of Saint Mary Magdalene, who was born in Judea, was brought to Gaul from such a distant region”. He justified his claim on the grounds that all things were possible for God and furthermore, sceptics had been punished while those who had confessed their doubt had been rewarded with salvation by Mary Magdalene’s intercession.Girart-Manusc. In 1058 the relics were given the Papal seal of authenticity.

With the claim to possession of her mortal remains beyond dispute, the abbey grew to become one of the major pilgrimage shrines of medieval Europe.

By the end of the century one of the largest churches in Christendom stood over the simple crypt.

There are a number of legendary narratives which tell of how the relics reached Vézelay. The stories overlap and the names of the protagonists vary, however two key figures emerge, a monk named Badilon and the original ninth century founder of the abbey, Count Girart de Roussillon.

The oldest account features Badilon, who in the ninth century had taken refuge at Vézelay from the nearby monastery of Saint Martin at Autun which had been raided by Visigoths from southern France. At some point he had travelled to the Holy Land and on his return had acquired the relics of the saint at Constantinople .

Girart-&-BertheThe secondary tradition names Girart de Roussillon and his wife Berthe as the principal figures  These were the founders of two abbeys in Burgundy at Vézelay and Pothières.

They acquired quasi-sanctification via a Latin hagiography entitled the Vita Girardi and were buried at Pothières.

The epic vernacular poem the Chanson de Girart de Roussillon  which deals with the rivalry between Girart and the emperor Charles the Bald, provided a variation on the legend.

According to this account, the relics of Mary Magdalene were passed to Girart by a pilgrim named Guintrant who had been incarcerated for fifteen years while in the Holy Land and miraculously released at which point God had placed the saintly relics in his care.

M-M-Chartres-ProvenceBoth of these traditions included variants which took account of the legend that held that Mary Magdalene had travelled by ship from the Holy Land to Marseille in the company of her brother and sister, Lazarus and Martha and a company of seventy-two disciples.

In Provence, she lived the life of a hermit and on her death had been buried at Aix by Maximinus one of those who had accompanied her from Palestine and had now become the city’s first bishop.

Unlike the rest of France, Provence had suffered from a continued Saracen presence during the eight and ninth centuries.

Alpilles-6This was therefore fertile ground for the epic poets of the Chansons de Geste of the twelfth century whose tales of heroic deeds by Frankish warriors against the Moors in Provence possessed the quality of proto-Crusades.

The relics of Mary-Magdalene were considered at risk and were rescued in clandestine operations in a number of seperate accounts.  In one  of these the two traditions come together when we learn that Girart  de Roussillon sent a monk named Badilon to retrieve the relics from Aix and bring them safely to Vézelay.

That the relics of Mary Magdalene’s brother Lazarus had been translated to Autun in 972 would certainly have lent the Provencal tradition a greater degree of substance.

Any doubts which abbot Geoffroy may have entertained would have been dispelled when one Saturday after Matins, as he placed the cover over the relics, a vision appeared to him of a woman who seemed to say to him ,“I am she who is thought by many to be here”.

Mary Magdalene was the medieval world’s most emblematic saint. However it wasn’t  until the sixth century that the saint assumed a specific identity and subsequently an important role in Christian theology.San-Juan-DP-M-M

It was Pope Gregory the Great who consolidated under a single identity three seperate women of the Gospel texts. Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus he identified as the same woman named Mary Magdalene  discoverer of the empty tomb after the Crucifixion and first witness to the Resurrection.

Unifying these with the nameless woman condemned as a sinner by Simon the pharisee and redeemed by the act of washing the feet of Christ with her tears, an immensely potent figure was created.

“Noli me tangere – do not touch me for I am not yet ascended to my father”, these were the celebrated words ascribed to Jesus when Mary Magdalene came upon him after finding his tomb empty.

Mary Magdalene was both the archetypal sinner redeemed and through her devotion a symbol for nothing less than the Christian Church. She was known as the Apostle to the Apostles.

In the eleventh century the Benedictine abbey of Vézelay in Burgundy declared possession of her relics. This was a contentious claim since the legend of Mary Magdalene told of her journey after the Pentecost from Palestine to Provence, where she had ended her days as a hermit. In order to justify the presence of her relics at Vézelay the legend was  embellished further by the involvement of one of the heroes of the epic Chansons de Geste, Girart  Comte de Roussillon.

San-Juan-DP-M-M-2Girart had founded the abbey at Vézelay in the ninth century. The new account told of how he had brought with him Mary Magdalene’s mortal remains in order to preserve them from the hands of the Saracens who were then ravaging Provence..

The abbey’s claim to possess the relics was endorsed by papal confirmation in 1058. The massive size of the church at Vézelay is an indication of the large numbers of pilgrims who came to Vézelay in hope of miraculous cures and the remission of their sins.