The Watcher: Vezelay

Leo was back and we began our pilgrimage of Romanesque churches. 


It is July.

Hotel Le Cheval Blanc

overlooks the valley

where at noon each olive tree

is cradled in its shadow.

We can’t wait to see

Sainte Marie Madeleine.

Not the façade of the abbey church

but the narthex

evoking Bernard of Clairvaux,

the Crusades, Richard the Lion-Hearted.

Christ, spread-eagle, hovers

over His Apostles

framed above on either side

by monstrous human beings,

dog-headed, noseless, with great flapping ears,

all waiting to receive the Word.

In the church, we were taken in tow by a tall young Franciscan friar, a handsome figure in his brown robes, who seemed to have taken a liking to Leo and ignored me as being only a woman. He was extremely knowledgeable about the church and explained that in the choir Christ and the disciples were represented by round columns whereas the square one was Judas, since for the Greeks the circle was a perfect form and the square imperfect.

After almost two days at Vezelay, and the magic of its church, it was time to continue on to other towns. And sad I was to leave – for here one felt everything to be right – “meet”. The life cycle perfect. We bought sort of applesauce turnovers, still hot, and sat on old stone slabs, probably Roman, to eat them as we watched a child playing by the wall.

Our next stop was Autun. It gave us both a memory that accompanied us throughout our lives.


You and I

running hand in hand

to check each Roman city gate

for the source of the Ionic pilaster

on the medieval church of St. Lazare.

Just the two of us

running hand in hand

to outrace the setting sun.

Then Colmar. My God. The magnificence, the depth of Grunewald’s Isenheim Altar. One can feel the terrible suffering of Christ and the pity of John as he envelops Mary in his love. A Mary who is spent, who has stopped breathing. My Son, my Sweet Son, one can hear her moaning. Tortured twisting of the cross, of Christ’s body. One did not see the horror of the body’s pain – it was not repellant as with other German works where the wound is shown profusely bleeding, and the artist seems to delight in showing the physical pain. I can’t help but compare this approach with the somehow much more “civilized” Italian painters.

Freiburg, Alsace. As we moved on to Strasbourg, Leo invented a guessing game for art historians. Each of us was to draw a few lines to indicate buildings and elements of a scene, or ask pertinent questions those in the know, like me, should be able to answer.

Art Historian’s Guessing Games

The train chugs on

from one small village to the next,

with fields of golden wheat

and an occasional chateau.

Standing in the aisle

the window open to let in a breeze

we while away the time

playing guessing games.

Who painted the Virgin with a cat?

And where do you first see a shadow cast?

Can angels, after all, cast shadows?

And who showed Icarus plunging into the sea?

Time passed all too quickly. Much as Leo loves the Romanesque, he had to head back to his baroque studies in Italy and work on his PhD thesis. And my relatives in Germany were wondering what had happened to me.

Light-hearted chateaux gave way to grim castles. I could also once more understand the language, for in a way German was my mother tongue.

To be continued . . .

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