It was at basilique-Saint-Denis that flying buttresses were first tried. This architectural innovation allowed the huge windows of stained glass that became the hallmark of the great gothic cathédrales.
In his series about the great gothic cathédrales
of France, Louis la Vache has written that the invention of the flying buttress is what allowed the design of these magnificent edifices to succeed, and that the flying buttress was first tried at basilique-Saint-Denis
. Louis realizes that peut être
he should have begun the series with a post about Saint-Denis
, even though Saint-Denis
is not a cathédrale
, a cathédrale
being a church that is the seat of a bishop.
The series began with Chartres
was next, followed by Nôtre-Dame-d'Amiens
Louis will now have us take a step back and look at l'église
that made it all possible, Basilique-Saint-Denis
. The basilica is located in the eponymous suburb just north east of Paris. The church is an architectural landmark. It was the first major structure built in the Gothic style. Basilique-Saint-Denis
is historically significant for more than architectural reasons as we shall learn below.
Louis begins with a brief introduction to the saint for whom the basilica is named.
Saint Denis (or as it is sometimes spelled, Denys) was the first bishop of Paris and is now the patron saint of France. In the Western church, his feast day is le 9 octobre
; in the Eastern church, his feast day is le 3 octobre
. Little is known of his life. He probably died in 258.
Probably born in Rome, he was, according to the VI ème siecle
historian and bishop Gregory of Tours, one of seven bishops sent to convert the people of Gaul during the reign of Decius. Denis is believed to have been martyred during the persecutions of the emperor Valerian. A IX ème siecle
legend says that he was beheaded on Montmartre
, "martyr's mountain," on the north east side of Paris in what today is the 18 ème arrondissement
, and that his decapitated body carried his head to the area northeast of Paris where the Benedictine abbey of St. Denis was founded. Thus on church statuaries, Saint-Denis is traditionally shown holding his head.
Saint-Denis, holding his head, greets visitors entering la cathédrale Nôtre-Dame-de-Paris.
In the V ème siecle
had a shrine built on the site of the tomb of Saint-Denis.
It was at this site where Dagobert I, king of the Franks, who reigned from 628 to 637, founded the Abbey of Saint Denis, attached to a Benedictine monastery.
During the Merovingian era (486-751) of the Frankish kingdom, Basilique-Saint-Denis
became the royal abbey church. Around 750 a new sanctuary was begun by Pepin the Short and finished by Charlemagne. The third Basilique Saint-Denis was built in 775 during the Carolingian era. Joan of Arc blessed her weapons at the abbey, and it was there that Abelard became a monk.
The abbey's banner, the oriflamme
, was the royal standard of France from the reign of Louis VI (early XII ème siecle
) to that of Charles VI (early XV ème siecle
In 1137 Abbot Suger (1081-1151) began to reconstruct the by now badly dilapidated church. The west facade and narthex were completed in 1140 and the choir was completed in 1144. Suger continued to reconstruct the nave but he died in 1151 before the nave was finished. In his rebuilding of the choir of the basilica, Suger created a true hymn to light, as a manifesto of new gothic art. The double deambulatory and his surrounding chapels create an uninterrupted diaphanous crown of light thanks specially to the split of the bays in each chapel. Nicknamed because of its brightness, the "Lucerna", the lantern, the XIII ème siecle
basilica is a novelty notably because (in addition to the huge windows of stained glass) of its use for the first time of a new style of pillars, fasciculated pillars (pillars made of bundles of small columns), by the openwork triforium and the immensity of the rose windows illuminating a transept of exceptional width.
Here (and below) the windows of the choir at Saint-Denis
Suger’s vision was that light was a metaphor for God, and that the architecture of churches should help worshipers transcend the temporal and ascend to the spiritual. Thus the soaring walls of glass, the light, symbolizing God, heaven, and Jesus as the Light of the World, from the upper windows flooding the worship space, replacing the temporal, darker, earthly spaces below. The glass transmutes the light creating a very otherworldly effect - inviting contemplation and allowing the soul to come into union with the presence of God.
Suger’s vision swept France in a great wave of cathedral building. If one could sum up the French national soul in those years, it would have to be called "the gothic cathedral". The people of France put their heart and soul into its inauguration. As a nation, they contributed one third of their gross national resources to this effort.
Not only did Suger contribute to the cathedrals' inceptions in an organizational manner, but he actually helped to formulate the form and shape that they were to take. As a disciple of the theological works of an earlier Saint-Denis, Saint-Denis the Greek, who affirmed "God is Light", Suger once again declared, "Let there be Light", and the gothic cathedral was born, not as an architecture but as a theological idea. Even the gothic cathedrals which came soon after Saint-Denis (Chartres, Sens, Noyon, Paris) did not achieve the volume of light and lightness in architecture of the choir at Saint-Denis. The wheel window over the west porch is thought to be the first one to be filled with stained glass. If this is true, it must be considered as the mother-seed of the rose windows. Suger’s Saint-Denis was ahead of its time, even as an initiator.
The rebuilding of basilique-Saint-Denis
under Suger has political as well as architectural significance. We will see the reasons for this further below. For Suger, of course, the primary significance of his church was neither political nor architectural but religious, insofar as he could separate the three. His main goal was to honor God and Saint-Denis. The latter deserves some attention at this point.
According to legend, Saint-Denis entered Gaul as a missionary in A.D. 250 and was executed in Paris eight years later. It was not all that easy. The Romans unsuccessfully tried roasting him on a gridiron, throwing him to the beasts, and baking him in an oven before they hit upon the idea of beheading him. That worked, but not immediately, for the decapitated saint picked up his head and walked two miles to the future site of the abbey before giving up the ghost.
However amazing his legend may seem, medieval historians made it even better by confusing him with two other figures of the same name. "Denis" is the French version of the Latin "Dionysius," the name Suger actually used. We encounter another Dionysius in Acts 17:34, converted during Paul's brief missionary visit to Athens. Five centuries later, in the late fifth or early sixth century, an anonymous Syrian theologian fascinated by the religious symbolism of light wrote a series of treatises which were attributed to the Dionysius of Acts 17:34. Eventually all the elements were combined and, according the legend, Dionysius was converted by Paul, became bishop of Athens, wrote the treatises, and eventually missionized France where he was martyred.
The identification is more important than one might at first imagine. The figure of Saint-Denis united the various aspects of the church in a peculiar way. As patron saint of France, his interests were tied to those of France in a twofold sense. His glorification was hers in a very direct way because he symbolized France. It was also hers more indirectly because, like other saints, Denis would not neglect to reward a favor, and thus one could expect him to intervene for king and country more enthusiastically if his church was generously endowed.
Denis also united the religious and architectural aspects of the new church. It is hardly a coincidence that both the pseudo-Dionysian treatises and nascent Gothic architecture are interested in light. As written above, Suger himself was fascinated by the religious implications of light and built accordingly.
Suger's ideal is expressed that:
The church would have "the most radiant windows"
to "illuminate men's minds so that they may travel through apprehension of God's light.
Suger was quite explicit that artistic and architectural elegance didn't distract Suger from God, it led him to God. He said we could come to understand absolute beauty, which is God, only through the effect of beautiful things on our senses. He said, "The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material."
Thus for Suger this new architecture was a theological statement. Geometrical harmony, he said, is the source of all beauty because it exemplifies the laws by which Divine reason made the universe itself.
To Abbot Suger, drawing on the description in the Book of Revelation, the church came to represent the New Jerusalem, and the windows were the bejeweled walls of the heavenly city. A window would show a large figure of a saint in heavenly glory, with scenes from his or her life or legend arranged below like beads on a rosary. The larger rose windows had more complex themes, with prophets, apostles, saints and angels arranged in dazzling symphonies of light. Stained glass freed the Bible from its pages, allowing its stories to become visual tapestries, comprehensible to illiterate and scholar alike. Colors themselves took on symbolic meanings.
The west rose at Saint-Denis
Suger fit no mold. He was not in the least modest, but neither was he particularly arrogant. He may never actually have designed anything himself. But he was a magnificent arbiter of design. And we need only walk through one of those remarkable Gothic cathedrals to believe, with him, that material beauty really is a glimpse of the face of God.
Suger, was not only the abbot of Saint-Denis but was also prime minister to both Louis VI and Louis VII. The Abbot Suger, early humanist, tireless traveler, kings counselor and fine politician, is considered by many historians to be the father of modern France. As minister to Louis VI and Louis VII, Suger saw that France became more unified and he helped establish Paris as the center of power.
Suger was born in 1081 of a very minor knightly family He was dedicated to the abbey of Saint-Denis at the age of nine or ten and came to see himself as its adopted child. Appointed abbot in 1122, he held that position until his death in 1155.
His office was a highly prestigious one. As seen above, the abbey had been founded in the seventh century by the Frankish king Dagobert. By Suger's time it had long been the royal abbey of France. Kings were educated and buried there.
In Suger's time, the French monarchy was slowly but surely on the way up. The king was gradually gaining power over his unruly nobles and would eventually use that power to win a major role in European affairs. Most of that development was still in the future, but by 1137 the pendulum was already beginning to swing. As royal abbey, Saint-Denis was a symbol of royal power, and what was done to it redounded to the glory of both the monarch and France Thus the renovation of the basilica was a political as well as an architectural and religious event.
Suger was in a position to recognize this fact. His status as abbot made him one of the most powerful men in France. He was actively engaged in French political life and virtually ran the kingdom while King Louis VII was away on crusade. A fervent patriot, Suger never hesitated to identify the best interests of king, France, Church, abbey and God.
The influence of the abbey church on French architecture was undoubtedly furthered by its role as political symbol. When the new choir was consecrated in 1144, five French archbishops and thirteen bishops took part in the ceremony, an impressive tribute to Suger and his king. It was the French archbishops and bishops who would assume initiative in the future development of Gothic architecture.
As early as the V ème siecle
, France’s aristocrats were buried in the basilica. In 639 Dagobert was the first sovereign to be buried there. Over the centuries the Saint-Denis basilica became the "King's Cemetery" or is often referred to as being “The royal necropolis of France.” In the XIII ème siecle
the necropolis character of Saint-Denis was reinforced by the introduction of sculpted tombs. Their magnificent style was to evolve over the centuries. All but three of the monarchs of France from the Xème siecle
until 1789 have their remains here. Today, 43 kings, 32 queens and 10 great servants of the kingdom of France repose in the basilica.
Although almost all the kings of France were buried in the Basilica, unlike Westminster Abbey in England, it was not used for coronations; the cathedral at Reims assumed this honor.
The abbey church contains some fine examples of cadaver tombs. The effigies of many of the kings and queens are on their tombs, but during the French Revolution, these tombs were opened by workers under orders from revolutionary officials. The bodies were removed and dumped in two large pits nearby. Archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir saved many of the monuments from the same revolutionary officials by claiming them as artworks for his Museum of French Monuments.
Napoléon Bonaparte reopened the church in 1806, but the royal remains were left in their mass-graves. Following Napoléon's first exile to Elba, the Bourbons briefly returned to power. They ordered a search for the corpses of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, which were found on le 21 janvier 1815
and brought to Saint-Denis and buried in the crypt. In 1817, the mass-graves containing all the other remains were opened but it was impossible to distinguish any one from the collection of bones. As such, the remains were placed in an ossuary in Saint-Denis's crypt, behind two marble plates with the name of each monarch duly recorded.
King Louis XVIII, on his death in 1824, was buried in the center of the crypt, near the graves of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Under the direction of architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, famous for his XIX ème siecle
restoration of Nôtre-Dame-de-Paris, the monuments that were taken to the Museum of French Monuments were returned to the church. The corpse of King Louis VII, who had been buried at the Abbey at Saint-Pont and whose tomb had not been touched by the revolutionaries, was brought to St. Denis and buried in the crypt.
The abbey is now a school for daughters of members of the Legion of Honor.
The outrage of the revolution didn't affect the evocative power of memory in this original landmark of the French nation, which remains as a jewel case for light.
Why did the human mind conceive of and build these massive structures? Some historians think that they are "sermons in stone and glass." They are designed to instruct the people in moral and religious values, to convey the Bible stories to an illiterate population by the stained glass windows, to impress upon the populace the glory and majesty of God. We can thank the creative genius of Suger for conceiving of these “sermons in stone and glass.”
- • -
”For bright is that which is brightly coupled with the bright,
And bright is the noble edifice which is pervaded by the new light,
Which stands enlarged in our time, I, who was Suger, being the leader while it was being accomplished.”
Suger, De Administratione, XXIX
- • -
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