Art and Architecture in Medieval France: Medieval Architecture, Sculpture, Stained Glass, Manuscripts, the Art of the Church Treasuries

By Whitney S. Stoddard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
The Abbey of Saint-Denis

WHEN ABBOT SUGER dedicated the narthex of Saint-Denis (figs. 124, 127, 129), June 9, 1140, and the choir (figs. 132-138), June 14, 1144, he partially realized his dream of rebuilding the Royal Abbey and unwittingly, or perhaps wittingly, founded a new tradition. As the most powerful patron of the twelfth century, Suger had at his command the personal prestige, political influence, and financial support to utilize the artistic talents of the best craftsmen in western Europe. With Suger's dedications the whole course of architecture and sculpture changed directions. A new design for the west façade with a system of integrated apertures and wall buttresses, a new portal design with monumental jamb figures, and a new concept of architectural space and light -- all were inaugurated. Although the effects of these achievements in both architecture, sculpture, and stained glass are readily seen in later monuments of the Île-de-France, they transcend narrow geographical limits.

Suger's abbey was dedicated to Saint Denis, the first Bishop of Paris. Professor Sumner Crosby, of Yale University, in his books on Saint-Denis, has separated fact from fiction in the life of this saint. Saint Denis, one of seven bishops sent to Paris to convert the Gauls, was decapitated in the third century on the order of Decius. He was buried outside Paris in the area which then took his name. Saint Denis, being the oldest of the seven, became a national saint and is considered the first Bishop of Paris. More important than the facts concerning his life are the legends which sprang up around this patron saint of France. In the Middle Ages the legend confused Saint Denis with Dionysius the Areopagite and recounted his conversion to Christianity by Saint Paul and his arrival in Paris with two companions. He was said to have been tortured and decapitated on Montmartre and then to have walked to Saint-Denis with head in hand, finally to be buried on the present site of the church. In the library of the abbey was a ninth- century translation of Greek texts supposedly written by Dionysius the Areopagite as well as a ninth-century commentary on the Areopagite by John the Scot. Although the original texts were forged by an unknown Syrian in the early years of the sixth century, Suger thought that they were actually written by Saint Denis, the first apostle to the Gauls and the patron saint of France. As Erwin Panofsky has so clearly stated in his book on Abbot Suger, the writings in these texts present a theology which combines the Christian doctrine with "fundamental oneness and illuminous aliveness of the world." As Panofsky states:

According to the Pseudo-Areopagite, the universe is created, animated and unified by the perpetual self realization of what Plotinus had called "the One," what the Bible had called "the Lord," and what he calls "the super essential Light" or even the "visible son" -- with God the father designated as "the Father of lights" and Christ as the "first radiance" . . . which "has revealed the Father to the world."

This emphasis on the metaphysical qualities of colored light certainly must have had a profound effect on Suger and is clearly evident in the design of the choir of his new abbey church. Divine light becomes the physical light of the new choir. This confusion between the writings of an unknown

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