Gothic Cathedrals of France and Their Treasures

By Marcel Aubert | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
The First Gothic Cathedrals

Suger became Abbot of Saint-Denis in 1122. A great administrator and executor of plans, he was, at the same time, committed to the most sublime mysticism. He immediately undertook the reconstruction of his church, and summoned workmen from all comers of France--from the south, the west, Lorraine and also from Normandy, whose influence is particularly prominent. He wanted first to replace the over-narrow entrance to the Carolingian building that was still standing, by a great façade with three doors. This would enable the many pilgrims coming to worship the relics of St Denis, the patron saint of the French monarchy, and his companion martyrs, Rusticus and Eleutherus, to enter and leave the building more easily. Work began about 1131 and the consecration of the new portal and the neighbouring bays at the west end of the nave, covered with cross-ribbed vaults, took place on 9 June 1140. Immediately afterwards, he enlarged the choir, beginning on 14 July of the same year and completing it four years later. On 19 January 1143, a terrible hurricane which brought havoc in its wake, threatened the still unfinished structure. However, it failed to disturb the transverse arches and the intersecting diagonal ribs which were already in place but of which the cells had not yet been filled in. This proof of strength remained evidence of the solidity and value of the structural members of the Gothic vault, which enabled the roofs of our cathedrals to rise higher and higher, from Senlis and Noyon, to Laon and Notre-Dame de Paris, up to Chartres, Bourges, Rheims, Amiens and Beauvais. On 11 June 1144, the gathering at Saint-Denis for the solemn consecration of the new choir included the King, Louis VII, the Queen and the nobles, as well as a large number of archbishops, bishops and abbots. They could admire this light yet powerful construction, slender and yet strong, with solid and well- balanced vaults, spacious and commodious exits, and large windows decorated with stained glass, shedding abundant warm and coloured light throughout. Many of those present tried to reconstruct their own churches on the model of the beautiful building Suger had just completed. This date marks the triumph of the new Gothic art. Suger did not have time to erect the large nave with double side-aisles he had conceived. The upper parts of the choir, the transept and the nave were reconstructed in the thirteenth century by the famous architect, Pierre de Montreuil. But the west front and the two neighbouring bays, the ambulatory, the chapels of the apse and the crypt were preserved. These still date back to Suger's construction, as do some of the stained-glass windows. Suger contributed the themes for the scenes and personages depicted there, as well as the inscriptions which emphasize their meaning. He himself directed and supervised their execution

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