CHAPTER 2
THE EARLY GOTHIC PERIOD

1. The Beginnings of the Gothic Structural System

ACCORDING to Suger, the Carolingian church at St Denis had two faults: the entrance was too narrow for the crowds of pilgrims, and the space round the main altar was not large enough on feast days when the relics were being shown. The first of these faults was eliminated in 1140, when the new west part was finished. When the building at the west had reached the level of the horizontal above the camera and the original battlements were finished, Suger turned to the reconstruction of the east end. For the time being the old choir remained, as it did in many other churches that were reconstructed. It was not pulled down until the walls of the new choir beyond it had reached a sufficient height. Suger describes how the old crypt and the chapel to the east of it were used to put the new choir on a higher level so that the relics might be more easily viewed. He praises his architect for making the measurements of the new choir so exact that, after the removal of the old choir, the new axis continued that of the nave. Considered in the light of the primitive means of measuring available in the Middle Ages, this skill certainly merits recognition.1 Nowadays we are less interested in the achievement in terms of geodesy than of style. Though he speaks indirectly of this, Suger does not make any direct remarks about it.2 Presumably the abbot and his architect decided together not to have only one ambulatory with seven chapels round the main apse, but to dispense with the walls separating the chapels, and in this way create a second ambulatory round the first (Plate 10). This was the solution to the problem of how to facilitate the circulation of the pilgrims. On feast days one could climb the flight of steps on one side, obtain an excellent view of the relics, and walk round the choir and down the steps on the other side. If people wanted to take part in a service held in one of the chapels, they could interrupt their walk round the choir and step into the chapel. We do not know whether the chapels, too, were used to display relics.

The double ambulatory gives the effect of a 'hall-church'. The main choir rises above them as it would in a church of basilican type. This central section was replaced in 1231 by a High Gothic structure: the piers of the arcade had already been altered about 1200.3 Suger's choir presumably had a gallery over the inner ambulatory.4 Suger mentions the rib-vault in the choir.5 It must have been similar in its geometrical construction to the vault in the ambulatories.

The most obvious difference between the two western bays and what is preserved of the east end is that the latter is extremely light, whereas the former is much heavier. The massive piers of the west narthex were built because high towers were to rise above them. There was no such necessity at the east end. It has been debated whether both plans were drawn by the same architect, who merely suited his design to the exigencies

-34-

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