The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral

By Robert A. Scott | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
An Image of Heaven

In 1144 a ceremony was held to dedicate the newly completed Gothic choir of the Abbey Church of St. Denis. Otto von Simson writes that, for Abbot Suger, the renovated choir was an embodiment of the “mystical vision of harmony that divine reason has established throughout the cosmos. ” 1 Suger portrayed the choir as a place where heaven touched earth, a space where the living could glimpse heaven. This description expresses the conception that gave rise to the Gothic style of architecture. The Gothic cathedral was intended as a space where people could get a taste of heaven (see Figure 31).

What does von Simson mean when he says that this medieval bishop conceived of his cathedral as providing an “image of heaven”? 2 To us an image is a visual representation of an object that inherently entails our personal interpretation and perspective. To the medieval theologian, however, the term image had a different meaning, closer to the Greek word mimesis, which signifies “imitation, ” or a literal copying of a natural form. It implied the actual embodiment of the thing it stood for, an attempt at a literal representation of the thing itself, or—with regard to Suger's remark— at least as literal a depiction of a spiritual ideal as one could achieve in the material world. When Suger said that the new choir provided

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