Light Upon Light: Abbot Suger and the Invention of Gothic

Several weeks ago, I had the good fortune to attend a day-long summit on innovation in the Pacific Northwest (where I live), including how to foster innovation, and who it benefits, and I came away wondering how innovation as a concept fit into the study of mediaeval history. Certainly, despite its backwards and static reputation, the Middle Ages oversaw its fair share of innovations, whether in agricultural techniques or commercial methods. To my mind, however, the most inspiring innovations of the mediaeval period took place in the artistic and architectural spheres, culminating in the elaboration of a new style–Gothic–that spanned the crafts and drastically altered the burgeoning cityscapes of Europe.

Both before and during the 11th century, churches were built in a style called romanesque, characterised by the use of heavy stone columns and rounded arches, which were necessary to support the immense weight of the structures. Early in the following century, however, new, more advanced techniques were emerging, and they came together for the first time in France.

A portrait of Suger-as-artistic-patron in one of St-Denis’ glass windows. (Wikimedia Commons).

Our main source for these developments are the remarkably detailed writings of Abbot Suger of St-Denis, the patron of the first architectural project (that we know of) to consistently employ Gothic features. St-Denis was a significant abbey, long the burial place of French royalty, and as its abbot, Suger commanded a significant place in the political scene. It should come as no surprise, then, that when Suger decided to renovate St-Denis in 1137, he did so in a style that proclaimed his foundation’s central importance to the still fledgeling realm of France. (The dynasty of the time, the Capetians, had little practical power outside the Ile de France–a fact testified by Suger’s own biography of King Louis the Fat.) Nor should we be surprised that he left a meticulous textual record of the changes wrought under his leadership.

Book of Suger Abbot of St. Denis on What Was Done During his Administration is one of two works left by the Abbot about his building projects, and it presents the changes as responses to difficulties faced by the faithful in the older structure. Because pilgrims were uncomfortably crowded during feast days, for example, Suger ‘undertook to enlarge and amplify’  the church, just as he improved what had been a cold and draughty setting for the monks to pursue their devotions. While these justifications were doubtless rooted in pitfalls in the original abbey, however, their main intent seems to be to forestall criticism–a hint that Suger was undertaking more than simple repair.

In fact, he was flouting the current style of austere church architecture popularised by the Cistercians by employing only the costliest of materials, and by decorating every conceivable surface. According to his own report, his own demand for precious gems was so great that merchants flowed in from all corners of Europe to satisfy it. Gold, silver, sapphires, and rubies were all employed–according to Suger–for the glory of God. These lavish decorations were placed over a church structure that, thanks to the newly developed pointed arch, possessed much larger windows than had previously been possible.

Suger would have approved of Sainte Chapelle, whose delicate stonework and 13th century glass epitomised the Gothic style he espoused. (Wikimedia Commons)

This triad–ornamentation, technical accomplishment, and, above all, light–would come to define Gothic as it spread and developed. Loftier and brighter than their Romanesque predecessors, the new Gothic churches provided a drastically different venue for worship. Suger’s own awareness of the relationship between his new architecture and his faith can be seen in the verses which he placed throughout, and particularly those on the highly wrought doors:

‘All you who seek to honor these doors,
Marvel not at the gold and expense but at the craftsmanship of the work.
The noble work is bright, but, being nobly bright, the work
Should brighten the minds, allowing them to travel through
the lights.
To the true light, where Christ is the true door.
The golden door defines how it is imminent in these things.
The dull mind rises to the truth through material things,
And is resurrected from its former submersion when the
light is seen.’

Here, Suger expresses the correspondence between the physical space of the church and its spiritual aim–to conduct the soul towards the contemplation of the divine. Elsewhere, however, he was not above commemorating his own exalted role as patron–his writings are scattered with references to his own name (placed on windows and lintels)–and the many royal figures whose donations to St-Denis made it foremost among the churches of France.

A modern statue of Suger stands outside the ruins of St-Omer (previously St-Bertin), which display the influence of Gothic construction. (Wikimedia Commons)

Curiously, though, despite Suger’s eagerness to record the proceedings of the rebuild, he never mentions the name of the architect whose technical expertise enabled his bold innovations. Although he undoubtedly deserves credit for the innovative combination of craft and theology that created the Gothic style, therefore, its ultimate origins remain obscure. As can be seen by the many exquisite cathedrals and chapels of the High Middle Ages, this unknown individual’s work had an impact upon the face of Europe whose importance is hard to underestimate.

Learn More: 

The Internet Medieval Sourcebook has translated excerpts of Suger’s works, including the Book of Suger Abbot of St. Denis on What Was Done During his Administrationand is the source for the quotations above.

Erlande-Brandenburg, Alain, Cathedrals and Castles: Building in the Middle Ages (New York, 1993), is a lovely pocket-sized work on the subject with fantastic illustrations.

4 thoughts on “Light Upon Light: Abbot Suger and the Invention of Gothic

  1. I’ve been fascinated by Gothic architecture ever since moving to Paris. I can’t imagine what it must have been like back then to see a Gothic cathedral compared to the heavy, austere Romanesque that everyone had known previously. It must have been a truly religious experience!

      • Favorite church in Paris, that’s a tough one! Of course Notre Dame is fantastic; it’s a master class not just in early Gothic but of how they’ve chosen to restore it over the years (you may know the name Viollet-le-Duc).

        I also really like the Saint Séverin church just across the river. It has some beautiful Flamboyant Gothic remnants and inside there’s a rare set of spiral columns in the…ambulatory (if my church vocabulary isn’t failing me), which can’t be found anywhere else.

        I also spend a lot of time behind the Saint Gervais-Saint Protais church, which has the peculiarity of being Gothic in the back and 17th century neo-Classical in the front. The street that runs behinds it, the rue des Barres, is a favorite hangout spot of mine. This picture I took of a guitarist playing behind the church will explain why I keep coming back to this beauty!

  2. Pingback: The Three Estates and the Body Politic: Christine de Pizan | mediaevalmusings

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