Pentecost and Mission to the Apostles Tympanum, Basilica Ste-Madeleine, Vézelay (France)

Pentecost and Mission to the Apostles Tympanum, central portal of the narthex, Basilica Ste-Madeleine, Vézelay (France), 1120-32

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:06] We’ve just walked up a very steep hill in the town of Vézelay in Burgundy in France. We’re in the church of La Madeleine.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:16] We’re in the narthex, actually, which is the forecourt inside the church before you walk into the basilica itself. In the second set of doorways on the main portal, above are a set of incredible tympana, but the central one is just astonishing. This is among the first large-scale figural sculpture of the late medieval period.

Dr. Harris: [0:40] This is a very important church. It houses the relics of Mary Magdalene. It was the place where one of the pilgrimage routes began.

Dr. Zucker: [0:49] The pilgrimage routes that worshippers could follow on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, from church to church, from set of relics to set of relics.

Dr. Harris: [0:59] This church is important for the relics and is a place where a pilgrimage route began, but it’s also important because this was the place that the Second and Third Crusades began.

Dr. Zucker: [1:09] The First Crusade, which began in 1095, was an attempt by Christians in the West to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims. Of course, this was a terribly violent campaign. Although they were initially successful, ultimately they were driven out.

[1:27] The second campaign was called by the abbot Clairvaux who wanted the Crusaders to go forth into non-Christian lands and to convert those foreigners. This idea of moving out and converting the world is reflected in the subject matter of this tympanum.

Dr. Harris: [1:46] In the center we see Christ with six apostles on either side. Christ is giving his mission to the apostles to spread the Gospel to all peoples of all nations and all creatures.

Dr. Zucker: [1:59] You can see, actually, that they’re all holding books. Those would be the Gospels themselves that they’re going to be preaching. If you look very closely, you can see that there are rays, miraculous representations of light, that are reaching from Christ’s fingers to the apostles themselves.

Dr. Harris: [2:14] Some art historians have interpreted this scene as the mission to the apostles, and some as the event that happened 10 days later of the Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and they were given the ability to speak in many languages to convert the peoples of the earth.

Dr. Zucker: [2:30] This tympanum is quite deliberate in representing those peoples of the earth and, in a sense, the strangeness of the world beyond Christian borders.

Dr. Harris: [2:39] The world was very small in the early 12th century.

Dr. Zucker: [2:42] That’s true. The Europeans really didn’t know much about the world beyond their borders. The first Crusaders had come back with marvelous stories, and they had spoken of people from southern Asia who had ears large enough to wrap themselves in.

Dr. Harris: [2:58] And we see that on this tympanum.

Dr. Zucker: [2:59] That’s right. They spoke of small people that needed ladders to get up on to their horses, and that’s represented also, literally, here. This really speaks to the ignorance and in some ways the fear that people here had of the worlds that they didn’t know.

Dr. Harris: [3:16] In the center of this tympanum, we see Christ in a mandorla, a kind of body halo.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] But he breaks out of it. He’s so powerful and so large that even that spiritual light can’t contain him.

Dr. Harris: [3:29] And he’s very thin, and elongated.

Dr. Zucker: [3:32] He’s also really elegant. Look at how his posture is somewhat to the side. The knees are together but they’re pushed to our right, and I suspect that this was one of the ways that his divinity is represented.

[3:44] Look at his body. You’re absolutely right. He’s very flat, very linear, very attenuated. Look at the way in which patterns are so carefully rendered. There are those marvelous kinds of swirls, and it’s as if the cloth itself is a sign of his spirituality.

Dr. Harris: [3:59] Well, and I think there’s a divine energy that seems to run through the figures in their gestures and their limbs.

Dr. Zucker: [4:07] Christ is the largest figure. He dominates everything.

Dr. Harris: [4:10] And, here we are, in the early 12th century, at this moment of the rebirth of monumental sculpture in the West.

Dr. Zucker: [4:16] Some scholars have suggested that the stylization, especially of the cloth, can be seen in representations in painting from this time, especially paintings from Cluny, the large Benedictine church just south of here.

Dr. Harris: [4:30] Then, actually, there’s one example that survives, of painting, from that period, at Berzé-la-Ville, that some scholars suggest this resembles.

Dr. Zucker: [4:39] It makes sense that, since large-scale figural sculpture was just being revived, that artists would look to other media for systems of representation. Let’s take a look at the sculpture itself. We have Christ in the middle, as we’ve established.

[4:54] We have the apostles on either side, and then, down in the lintel, we have the peoples of the world, from different historical periods. We have, perhaps, the ancient Greeks on the left that need to be converted. Just above the tympanum itself there are a series of compartments. They also reflect this idea of conversion.

Dr. Harris: [5:13] And, specifically, the power that Christ gave the apostles to save and condemn, to preach the Gospel to all nations and creatures, to heal the sick, to drive out demons. We see, for example, the conversion of the Jews.

Dr. Zucker: [5:30] We see people with the heads of dogs. We see people who are blind who can see. It’s a series of miracles that’s meant to inspire.

[5:38] I think it’s crucial that all of this reference to the New Testament is also at the same time meant to be an inspiration for medieval men to go out and convert, to go out and save.

Dr. Harris: [5:51] In the very place where Bernard of Clairvaux called for the Second Crusades.

[5:55] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Pentecost and Mission to the Apostles Tympanum, Basilica Ste-Madeleine, Vézelay (France)," in Smarthistory, December 10, 2015, accessed April 23, 2024,