Saint Denis Basilica, built under the supervision of Abbot Suger, heralded Europe’s shift from Romanesque to Gothic. The difference can be seen in its pointed arch, the ribbed vault, the ambulatory with radiating chapels, the clustered columns supporting ribs springing in different directions and the flying buttresses which enabled the insertion of large clerestory windows.
Clean up corruption among monks
In the 1120’s, Peter Abelard called the abbey at Denis “completely worldly and depraved” and the monks indulged in a “disgraceful way of life and scandalous practices.” Suger set out to reform the Benedictine Order at Saint-Denis...” [a]
The monks were harassed by politicians and invaders, and often became “grand and profane” and struggled to receive classical learning. [b] Saint Denis provided a place for this reformation.
Reconcile mystery and oppulent materiality
“The doctrine of original sin created social need for monasteries... few could afford to spend all their days in prayer and worship, and so monks took on this responsibility for the entire community... Thus the community considered monasteries to be engaged in a vital task, perhaps the most vital of all.” [c]
The church and monastary became the social and cultural center of the city.
Less initial demands for style
The Ile-de-France never had a particularly strong Romanesque tradition, which is one of the reasons why the Gothic style was able to establish itself there: people did not have strong preconceptions about how a church ought to look.” [d]
Liberation from gravity
Gothic was a “transormation of stone into something light and airy” while in Romanesque “the stones are there simply to hold the building up” [e] “Vaults are supported by surprisingly slim columns... windows reach almost to the floor, creating what Suger called a ‘crown of light.’ Wilhelm Worringer called this a “vertical ecstasy.” [f]
Join architecture elements
Rib vaults date back to 1100 in Normandy. Pointed arches were found in Normandy and Burgundy. Cylindrical columns were in ancient Rome in Egypt before that. St. Denise derived the triple portal of the west front from the arch of Constantine in Rome. The innovative rose window on the front façade of St Denis echoed the Roman Arch of Constantine which had a three-part division and three large portals to ease the problem of congestion.
The architect pulled many things from international sources to make something completely new.
Enlarge the volume using a modular principle
The modern vault could be repeated to create a bay. It’s units are segmented by windows, similarly to how the Romans treated their temples. Rational modulation opened new possibilities in form.
Honest forms, less ornamentation
Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux lamented “the measureless height of the houses of prayer, their exaggerated length, their useless width, the amount of stonemasons’ work they involved, their paintings which stimulate curiosity and disturb prayer.’”
Suger's solution: “In some ways the Gothic style may be seen not so much as an exaggeration and elaboration of Romanesque features as a simplification of them... the forms became less fanciful, the lines straighter and calmer.” [g]
Be like ancient Rome
Carrying on this Romanesque value, the Gothic looks back to the lost fathers of learning in Rome and Greece for knowledge and wisdm.
“A new nave was also projected, but its construction never progressed beyond the foundations, the remains of which indicate that it would have been atypical for its period in having double side aisles and columnar supports, characteristics that were probably meant to evoke earlier churches either in Rome (e.g. Old Saint Peter’s) or in Paris itself” [h]
Fresh confidence in the monarchy and church
“[Saint-Denis] had been the royal abbey since Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald became lay abbot in 867, and as such it was the spiritual heart of the state.”
“[Suger] intended to imply a link between these biblical rulers and the monarchs of Suger’s contemporary France, legitimizing the idea that it was France, not Germany, that was the true spiritual home of Christianity in the West.”
“Undertaking the construction of such a model demanded an intellectual and theological confidence that did not exist in Christendom until the twelfth century.” [i]
Historian Georges Duby: “The eleventh-century Christians still felt utterly crushed by mystery, overwhelmed by the unknown world their eyes could not see... Man felt as if surrounded by thick bushes, somewhere in them God was concealed.” [j]
Moderate political alliances
Suger sought political conciliation and negotiation between the French Kings and the papacy. “An alliance with Rome put the French in a stronger position against their mutual rival in Europe, the German Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, who came to the brink of invading France in 1124 until Louis VI mustered a force that faced him down. Suger urged the kind to make peace with Henry I, king of England... and also with the troublesome Thibaut IV... Henry’s nephew.” [k]
The buiding of Saint Denis helped ally France and the Vatican, and the entire wave of projects helped ally the monarchy with unfriendly local rulers, like Thibaut.
Unity of space and experience
”There is a distinct urge toward unity: that the Gothic cathedral is a place to be experienced all at once..."
"The nave of the Gothic cathedral appears to be enclosed in an envelope of space... The nave wall looks like a latticework placed in front of an envelope of space.” [l]
“For Gothic churches display, in a way that Romanesque does not, an overarching vision: a sense of wholeness and coherence.” [m]
Reveal the invisible universe
As a neo-Platonic celestial Jerusalem, the cathedral sought to reveal the invisible nature of the universe with symbolism. Unlike how we understand symbolism today, it avoided mimicry. It used color, proportion, etc. to convey a moral reality.
“They aimed to depict the underlying nature and structure of a universe that, in the here and now, was transient and imperfect... what is truly real is not the particular event but the concept it embodies... the cathedrals sought to convey not an aesthetic but a moral reality... encode a renunciation of our poor drab and degenerate world and an exhortation to seek only knowledge of God."
“The world was, according to Umberto Eco, ‘God’s discourse to man,’ and the cathedrals sought to reiterate this discourse: they ‘actualized a synthetic vision of man, of his history, of his relation to the universe... The cathedrals, the highest artistic achievement of medieval civilization, became a surrogate for nature.” [n]
Glorify the royal burial site & Solidify the Bishop’s power
“Suger’s plans for Saint-Denis were part of his vision for the glorification of France... the painted and gilded statues, the bejewelled golden altar, the wall hangings... made Saint-Denis an Aladdin’s cave of gaudy colour and opulence.” [o]
The word “Cathedra” means chair or throne of the Bishop. [p]
"Towns became self-sustaining centres of wealth... the bishop took advantage of that situation to build a power base." [q]
Saint Denis contributed to a paradigm shift where the people became “less mystical and more inwardly focused, more rational and worldly.” [r] This effected its modern structural form and programs.
Facilities for pilgrims
“It facilitated the circulation of pilgrims who came came to see the relics.” [s]
“According to an 11th-century legend, the old church had been consecrated by Christ himself; it was thus considered a holy relic and its structure technically inviolable: to avoid criticism Suger obviously took pains not to demolish it all at once.” [t]
Site: Burial Place of Saint Denis
In the 7th century, at the burial place of Saint Denis, Eligius “fabricated a mausoleum for the holy martyr Denis in the city of Paris with a wonderful marble ciborium over it marvelously decorated with gold and gems. He composed a crest [at the top of a tomb] and a magnificent frontal and surrounded the throne of the altar with golden axes in a circle. He placed golden apples there, round and jeweled. He made a pulpit and a gate of silver and a roof for the throne of the altar on silver axes. He made a covering in the place before the tomb and fabricated an outside altar at the feet of the holy martyr. So much industry did he lavish there, at the king’s request, and poured out so much that scarcely a single ornament was left in Gaul and it is the greatest wonder of all to this very day.” [u]
Rise of the Monasteries
St. Benedict established monasteries: “To establish due order, to foster an understanding of the relational nature of human beings, and to provide a spiritual father to support and strengthen the individual’s ascetic effort and the spiritual growth that is required for the fulfillment of the human vocation, theosis.” [v]
Cleaning up corruption and glorifying royal image:
“We resolved to hasten with all our soul and the affection of our mind, to the enlargement of the aforesaid place – we who would never have presumed to set our hand to it, nor even to think of it, had not so great, so necessary, so useful and honourable an occasion demanded it.” (Abbot Suger, De consecratione)
The revitalization of this monastic complex resulted in this desired result among the clergy. But is that really what Suger set out to do, or were political motivations more important and was he just post-rationalizing?
The opulence he put into the building ran counter to the humbleness and material poorness that Bernard demanded is necessary to clean up religious corruption.
Creating social unity:
“Of the diverse counts and nobles from many regions and dominions, of the ordinary troops of knights and soldiers [at the building’s consecration] there is no count.” (Abbot Suger, De consecratione)
So this is a building for every person? Something democratic? No. It does indicate, however, that the building was instantly relevant among all classes in the society... If what he says is correct.
Cleaning up corruption:
St. Bernard to Suger in a 1127 letter: “It was your errors, not at those of your monks, that the zeal of the saintly aimed its criticism. It was by your excesses, not by theirs, that they were incensed.” [w]
Bernard praised Suger for his achievement in revitalizing the monastary.
Recently Completed Buildings
Cathedral in Chartres, France
By Bishop Fulbert
Began immediatly after 1120 fire
Completed in 1260
The Holy Sepulchre, Cambridge
By 11th century Crusaders
Built around 1130
Grossmünster Cathedral, Zurich
Originally comissioned by Charlemagne
Built around 1106
Related Artists, Architects, Scientists
Bishop Fulbert - Commissioned Chartres Cathedral in 1020, requested funds from the King and other sources.
Beranger - Fulbert’s architect for Chartres, who built with a Gothic plan as constrained by the early Romanesque structure, setting a precedence in Gothic for respecting previous styles.
Geoffrey de Leves - Friend and influence on Abbot Suger. “In the magnificence of the western entrance that Geoffrey commissioned we can see a portent of what Suger had in mind for his own church when he began reconstruction in 1137.” [x]
St. Bernard - Established a center for Cistercian Order of monks, and demanded humble simplicity . He “grew to be a man powerful and respected enough to dictate to popes and kings.” [y] Influenced St. Denis.
Eligius - A goldsmith by training, worked on many churches and cathedrals including St. Denis.
Nicholas of Verdun - 1180-122 Goldsmith and Enamellist for the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral
Gerard of Cremona - Translated many texts in the 12th century, especially from Arabic and Latin, to expand the learning and philosophy of Europe.
Master Hugo - 1130-c.1150 Romanesque lay artist, made illustrations for the bible, made bronze doors for the western entry of the Abbey church.
Gislebertus - 1120-1135 French Romanesque sculptor. He worked on the Cathedral of Saint Lazare at Autun, France - made expressive doorways, tympanums, and capitals.
Saint Anselm of Canterbury - 1033 – 21 Benedictine monk, an Italian medieval philosopher, theologian, and church official. Founder of scholasticism.
Saint Denis - 250 Christian martyr and venerated saint. A third century Bishop of Paris.
Ibn Sīnā - 980 Completed 46 works on philosophy, medicine, theology, geometry, and astronomy. About 99 other influencial books can be attributed to Ibn Sina.
Abu Rayhan Biruni - Founder of Indology, the father of geodesy, and “the first anthropologist”. One of the earliest leading exponents of the experimental scientific method, particularly for mechanics and mineralogy, a pioneer of comparative sociology and experimental psychology, and the first to conduct elaborate experiments related to astronomical phenomena.
Alhazen - Contributed to the principles of optics, to anatomy, astronomy, engineering, mathematics, medicine, ophthalmology, philosophy, physics, psychology, visual perception, and to science in general with his introduction of the scientific method.
People had new hope in their clergy and government, the economy picked up, international influences, and greater values for learning and rationalsim led to the magnificent form. The historical struggle against corruption and mystic fear came to an end and a new struggle against opulence and worldly realities began.
The immensely popular Abbot Suger, who had served as a military leader for the king, put immense effort in the Saint Denis Basillica for the purpose of glorifying the nation and reforming the religious structure.
The highly modern structure used technical innovations from far away to do something that had rarely been sought in architecture: to let architecture contribute to the program rather than just providing shelter and open space. The architecture let in more light, it gestured the people toward the heavens, but most importantly it established itself as a very real symbol for the unseen world, for the moral and theological reality that couldn’t be seen in nature.
People gained courage, and they became less content with not knowing the truths of their environment.