Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Abbot Suger

Abbot Suger in stained glass
Back here, I discussed Gothic architecture, but there was no time to mention its birthplace, the Abbey Church of St.-Denis, or its midwife, Abbot Suger.*

The church had existed for centuries, and was rebuilt a few times before Abbot Suger (flourished 1122-1151) arranged the renovation that was to transform ecclesiastical architecture. The major elements of Gothic architecture—elaborate style, ribbed vaulting that supported higher ceilings, pointed arches that enabled larger windows, etc.—already existed, but Suger's efforts brought them together in one building for the first time and created something very different from the massive, dense, dark Romanesque style of building.

Was Suger an architect? A builder? How is it that we so confidently give him credit for this change in ecclesiastical building? Because he did something else that was unique for the era: he told us what he was doing. He left us two works, preserved by the Abbey: Liber de De rebus in administratione sua gestis (The book of deeds done in his administration), and Libellus Alter De consecratione ecclesiae sancti dionysii (The other little book on the consecration of the church of St.-Denis). Translated in 1946 by art historian Erwin Panofsky (previously mentioned here), they tell a tale of a devoted man dedicated to praising God and His creation through every aspect possible of the church that was built to honor Him.

Ambulatory showing ribbed vaulting
No, he probably didn't design the building, but we are sure he had a hand in the design, and have no reason to discount his words when he says:
Noble is the work, but the work which shines here so nobly should lighten the hearts so that, through true lights they can reach the one true light, where Christ is the true door… the dull spirit rises up through the material to the truth, and although he was cast down before, he arises new when he has seen this light.
Suger made clear that introducing more light to the interior of the church, promoting the use of color, and building in taller elements would help lift the congregants' spirit as well as their eyes upward. He had an enormous amount of money and effort put into the construction of a gold crucifix, 6 meters in height, and gold altar panels; into these panels he says he put:
about forty-two marks of gold; a multifarious wealth of precious gems, hyacinths, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and topazes, and also an array of different large pearls
The cross is long gone, but the church remains, celebrated as the first truly Gothic church, standing on the Ile de France. A piece of it—Suger's chalice—has made it to North America, however, and stands in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.  Also, there is a photo-filled blog devoted to Suger right here.

*Pronounced su-zháy.

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