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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2


Abbot Suger's Memoirs


          Abbot Suger's (1081-1151) autobiographical accounts, entitled Liber de De rebus in administratione sua gestis ("The book on what was done under his administration") and Libellus Alter De consecratione ecclesiae sancti dionysii ("The other little book on the consecration of the Church of Saint-Denis"), are among the best known sources of medieval art history. Erwin Panofsky, editor and translator of Suger's Latin memoirs, claims that Abbot Suger restored the Abbey Church with such remarkable fervor under the belief that he was its adopted son. As a young boy born to lowly parents who was dedicated as an oblate or lay novice to Saint-Denis at the age of nine or ten, he renounced his individual identity and became identified with the Abbey Church. Appointed abbot in 1122, Suger's main goal was to honor God and St.Denis through the beautification of his church.

         Suger's great ambition led to the thorough remodeling of the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, thus making his name synonymous with the beginning of Gothic art and architecture in France. While it remains uncertain just how much Abbot Suger actually influenced the design plan of Saint-Denis, it is certain that he was an active participant. It is quite touching to read the description of a sleepless Suger who thought that he must go himself to search for those hard-to-find wooden beams for the new west part, "Quickly disposing of other duties and hurrying up in the early morning, we hastened with our carpenters, and with measurements of the beams..." (III; Panofsky 1946, p.95).

          The rebuilding of the west façade seemed to especially conform to Abbot Suger's philosophy known as anagogicus mos or "the upward leading method." Influenced by the theological writings of Dionysius, the Syrian Pseudo-Areopagite (ca. 500), Suger believed that the universe consists of the "Father of Lights" (God) the "first radiance" (Christ) and the "smaller lights" (the people). Suger's rebuilding of the church exemplifies the desire to get closer to this "one true light" in his use of heightened architecture as well as by his passion for light in the church. The west façade served as a stepping-stone on the way to Heaven towards the light of God. The twelve columns in the choir, moreover, symbolized the twelve apostles, while the columns in the enlarged ambulatory represented the twelve prophets. Part of the original inscription of the west façade by Abbot Suger expresses this philosophy:

[Fig.1: Abbot Suger shown holding a model of the Jesse Tree Window, which he personally donated to Saint-Denis. Detail from the lower right corner, AD 1140-44 (photo: Athena Review)].

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's memoirs, furthermore, provide a very detailed description of the lavish additions to the royal abbey. One of the finest additions was made between 1145-1147 when Abbot Suger commissioned mosan goldsmiths (from the Meuse Valley) to create a huge cross (6 m in height) to adorn the choir (Panofsky 1946, pp.57-61). Mosan goldsmiths were known for their three-dimensional treatment of the metalwork as well as realistic facial expressions, detailed treatment of the hair, and the elegant rendering of drapery. The cross' naturalistic style, which was also adorned by four figures of evangelists at the base, soon became replicated in the stone sculptures of Gothic cathedrals such Senlis. Although the cross no longer exists, variants of the lower part of the cross have been found at the Abbey of Saint-Bertin, now Saint-Omer. Suger, furthermore, practiced what Panofsky calls supersplendent architecture through such features as the golden altar panels of the choir:

Into this panel…we have put according to our estimate, about forty-two marks of gold; [further] a multifarious wealth of precious gems, hyacinths, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and topazes, and also an array of different large pearls - [a wealth] as great as we had never anticipated to find (Of the Golden Altar Frontal in the Upper Choir XXXI; Panofsky 1946, p.55)

          Abbot Suger also replenished the choir with holy relics, thus reacting against the strict monastic order of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). While St. Bernard believed that gold has nothing to do with God, Suger justified his extravagant taste as a way of honoring the Lord with the most precious materials available. He had a definite taste for splendor and beauty and filled the church with golden vessels, stained glass, lustrous vestments ,and tapestries. One of the most singular works is a liturgical vase resembling an eagle, which was formed from an amphora made from ancient porphyry. This beautiful example of medieval art is reminiscent of either ancient classical zoomorphic vases, or the eagles portrayed on Byzantine fabric. According to Panofsky, Suger desired the wealth of his cathedral to be superior to that of the basilica at Hagia Sofia in Constantinople. By his death in 1151, he had renewed Saint-Denis from its very foundations and made his church one of the most resplendent in the Western world.

References:

Panofsky, E. (ed.) 1946. Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis and Its Treasures. Princeton, Princeton University Press.


The above text appears on page 34 of The Abbey Church of Saint-Denis: Birthplace of Gothic Art and Architecture in Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.


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