Gothic’s Genius: Abbot Suger

To me, I confess, one thing has always seemed preeminently fitting: that every costlier or costliest thing should serve, first and foremost, for the administration of the Holy Eucharist.”

If one were able to compare the great churches of France in the year 1100 to those standing a century and a half later, the marked difference in architectural style would be easy to see. Many of the elements that had characterized the Romanesque style remained: high stone vaults, internal elevations of multiple stories, pointed arches, extensive sculptural programs, and prominent towers. Yet these same elements were taken up into a more generous conception of interior space and overall monumentality that successfully created what most of us think of when we hear the word cathedral: the Gothic style.

It was in the Renaissance that the new style of the twelfth century came to be called Gothic, because the Goths had been barbarians, and the men of the Italian renaissance tended to downplay the achievements of their rivals to the north. With Chateaubriand’s Genius of Christianity (1802), ideological classicism was dealt a severe blow, and it became respectable and even common to admire high medieval architecture, so much so that the name Gothic has long since lost its original, negative connotation. It is, however, well to be aware that the creators of the style did not call their own churches Gothic. Indeed, we have no idea what they called them, for these master builders left behind no narrative accounts. But their German neighbors, who admired the new style and imported it, did give it a name: the Opus Francigena, or, loosely, the French way of building.

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This French style was born at the Abbey of St. Denis, just north of Paris, under the patronage of one of the most extraordinary men of the twelfth century, the Abbot Suger (1081-1151). Beginning in 1137, he presided over the reconstruction of the abbey of St. Denis. His master-builder is unknown to us, but between the builder and the abbot, a new style was forged, a style through which, to borrow from its patron’s own words, “the dull mind rises to truth through that which is material.”

Suger was the son of a minor nobleman who was given to the abbey of St. Denis as an oblate at the age of ten. The abbey, today a cathedral in an industrial suburb north of Paris, was then a thriving monastic community that enjoyed longstanding royal patronage and the right to host a semi-annual fair that brought it considerable revenue. Named for the third-century bishop and martyr Dionysius, St. Denis became the favorite burial site of the kings of France in the sixth century, and in Suger’s day already housed the tombs of such celebrated rulers as Dagobert, Charles Martel, and Pepin the Short.

After receiving a liberal education in cathedral schools friendly to the abbey, Suger was marked out for leadership in the community. He was chosen to travel to Rome as a delegate to the Papal court in 1106, and the following year accompanied Pope Paschal II during his travels in France. Like many zealous clergymen of the day, he favored the policies established by Pope St. Gregory VII during the investiture crisis of the previous century, policies that included the support of the Crusade and the tendency to favor reforming kings over local noblemen and the bishops who were often their relatives.

After his election as abbot in 1122, Suger firmly steered the abbey in the path of reform while managing to keep it in close relations with the king, Louis the Fat, whose Robin-Hood-like exploits he would later chronicle. During his tenure as abbot, Suger continued to travel throughout France, and was present at the papal consecration of the great abbey church at Cluny in 1130. These travels filled Suger’s mind with visions of grandeur. And the Abbey of St. Denis had the wealth to make those dreams a reality.

St. DenisSuger began his building campaign in 1137. In the little book that he wrote to tell the tale of his tenure as abbot, he explained that the large number of pilgrims on feast days made liturgical celebrations unfitting, “for the narrowness of the place forced the women to run toward the altar upon the heads of men as upon a pavement with much anguish and noisy confusion.” He first commissioned his master mason to build the abbey a new west front, the towers and portals that set a pattern for cathedral façades brought to a glorious culmination at Notre-Dame of Paris and Notre-Dame of Reims. Then, in 1140, he asked his builders to enlarge the choir, or, as Suger called it, “the chamber of divine atonement … where the continual and frequent Victim of our redemption” is sacrificed. The work was laborious, but God showered miracles upon the workers, and the choir was dedicated on 11 June 1144, with a vast throng of kings and nobles, bishops and abbots, monks and townsfolk in attendance.

The new choir was described by Abbot Suger as “a circular string of chapels.” He credited it with making the whole abbey church to “shine with the wonderful and uninterrupted light of most luminous windows.” His words give an excellent first impression of the interior space created by his builders. Although the Gothic style is not characterized by sheer brightness, it is fair to say that one of its most striking departures from the Romanesque is its opening up of the interior of the building to the penetration of light from the windows.

One of the greatest students of medieval architecture, Jean Bony, argued that the Gothic style has four principal elements: rib vaults, pointed arches, height, and openness. Of these four elements, the new one is openness: the other three can be found elsewhere. At St. Denis, all four characteristics can be seen, but what is most striking is the use of ribbed vaults to serve a new openness of the interior space. Norman and English builders had pioneered the use of the ribbed vault to bring the weight of the stone ceiling down onto piers lining the nave or central vessel of the church. At St. Denis, their technique was expanded upon with Gallic audacity, as the weight of the choir vaults was brought down to slender columns that make only the merest pretense of dividing the liturgical space of the choir from the ancillary chapels that surround it. Bony’s account remains authoritative:

When the Ile-de-France builders received from Normandy the method of rib vaulting and decided to use it, they refused to accept with it the heavy Norman walls, which they probably disliked intensely; and as a consequence vaulting became a more adventurous enterprise. To Norman minds it must have seemed an absurd gamble to try to combine in the same building the two contradictory ideas of total vaulting in stone on the one hand, and a systematic thinning out of the wall structure on the other. But Gothic architecture was the result of this inner contradiction.

The choir of St. Denis, with this new openness, profited from the richly-colored light of the stained glass windows more than any edifice before had done. The Abbot Suger had indeed succeeded in placing the celebration of the Holy Eucharist in a setting of incomparable splendor.

After overseeing the completion of the first work in the new Gothic style, Suger was called upon by King Louis VII to serve as his regent during his Crusade. Certainly a wealthy and powerful churchman, Suger was not without his foibles: he had representations of himself placed into the windows and sculpture of the abbey church. But they were images of a monk kneeling in prayer, and so are fitting testaments to a man whose zeal was the spark for one of the greatest creative initiatives in the history of art.

Author’s comment on photo: What is visible here is the twelfth-century work commissioned by Abbot Suger; the photograph of the space as it exists today includes the upper stories as modified in the thirteenth century and significantly restored in the nineteenth century. (Photo Credit: The Upper Choir of the Abbey Church, now Cathedral, of St. Denis, from Mapping Gothic France.)

  • Christopher O. Blum

    Christopher O. Blum is Professor of History & Philosophy and Academic Dean of the Augustine Institute. He is the editor and translator of St. Francis de Sales’ The Sign of the Cross: The Fifteen Most Powerful Words in the English Language (Sophia Press).

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