Romanesque sculpture: Vézelay Abbey Portal

Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art with Alessandro. This is the fourth episode of the Romanesque series (you can find the Youtube playlist link clicking here) and today we are going to discover an outstanding masterpiece of that style. It seems a simple door, but it is actually a portal to history and Medieval legends.

Vézelay Abbey - Romanesque Portal
ARTIST: Unknown
NAME Vézelay Abbey Tympanum
LOCATION Vézelay Abbey, France
YEAR 1120–1150
TYPE Sculpture

Vézelay Abbey

We are in a small French village called Vézelay where we can visit an abbey church that is in the list of the World Heritage sites since 1979.

It was built between 1120 and 1150, so during the mysterious Middle Ages and the portal I want to focus our attention on, is emblematic of that time.

Very important: I am not talking about the entrance, but the internal portal in the nartex: which is the forecourt inside the church before you walk inside the basilica.

Vézelay Abbey - floor plan

Vézelay Abbey Portal

As you can see the portal is majestic and that’s because this church is actually really important since it houses the relics of Mary Magdalene and it has been one of the main places for the medieval pilgrims.

But not only: from this Basilica the second and third crusades started . After the first one that was made to free Jerusalem from the Muslims, the second was initiated to convert the non-Christians.

And this goal is expressed in the tympanum of this huge portal. In the center we see Jesus with 6 Apostles on his sides while he is sending them to spread the Gospel to all peoples and creatures in the world.

Vézelay Abbey - Romanesque Portal
Vézelay Abbey Portal

Jesus and Apostles

Jesus is represented inside a mandorla, larger than the other characters because the Hierarchical proportions were still evident back then. And he is really elegant, sat on a throne with the knees on the side in the attempt of giving the idea of perspective and the cloth is patiently carved.

He is giving them his blessing represented by the rays that are coming from his hands and the Apostles are ready to go. In fact, we can see they are holding books, probably the Gospel. However, the rays could represent also the biblical event of the Pentecost when the Holy spirit descended on them making the Apostles able to speak in different languages. Without that super power it would have been really hard to spread the word of God.

Vézelay Abbey - central scene
Vézelay Abbey - central scene


And the tympanum wants to represent the world outside the Christian borders. It was a mysterious world and we know how during the Middle ages superstition and religion were really close to each other or, often, even melted together.

There were many legends and the First Crusade had pushed even more stories about fantastic creatures that are depicted in the lintel where we can see people so small that needed ladders to get on their horses or men and women with huge ears that they can even wrap themselves.

Vézelay Abbey - "monsters" detail


There are also men with heads of dogs, can you see them in the interactive image below?


In the 8 compartments there are the Apostles in mission to convert the non-Christians.

So it was a perfect advertising and motivation for all the people who supported the crusades and, for us, a great way to know more about the fascinating Middle ages. In the next episode we are going to start a new series and discover other art topics and fun facts, so don’t forget to subscribe to the Youtube channel and leave your comments. Ciao!

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