Some seven miles north of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, and a short trip on the Paris Metro, is the abbey basilica of Saint Denis, which has the claim to fame of being considered the first completely thought-out expression of Gothic architecture.
Yet, its origin is bound up in myth and misunderstanding, of almost comic complexity, focusing on its eponymous bishop.
The St. Denis for which it is named lived in the third century and was bishop of Paris at a time when the city was still primarily pagan. Under the repression of the emperor Decius, he was martyred, along with two of his fellow Christians. According to the legend, after Denis was beheaded, he calmly picked up his severed head and, holding it under his arm, walked the six miles from Montmartre, where he had been executed, to a place where the basilica now stands, preaching the whole way.
(The phenomenon of cephalophorism — carrying your severed head — is surprisingly common in hagiography. You can find statues of these saints on many a Gothic cathedral. It raises an interesting problem of iconography, though. If you are a saint and you are beheaded, does your halo remain with your head or hover over the stump of your neck? This is a question of more than academic interest to the Medieval painters and sculptors of the patron saint of France. The jamb statue of St. Denis on the front of Notre Dame de Paris opts for the stump.)
A martyrium was built on the site where Denis finally died, a saint in two parts. From that a church grew and it became a place of pilgrimage by the fifth and sixth centuries. An abbey was founded and it was this abbey that fell under the authority of the Abbot Suger in the 12th century.
Suger is one of the most remarkable personalities of the late Middle Ages. He was a priest, but also a politically powerful ally of kings Louis VI and VII, an ambassador to the Vatican, and ultimately regent of France during the absence of Louis VII during the Crusade. In addition, he was a prolific writer and wrote biographies of both kings.
But he is best remembered today because he took on the task of rebuilding parts of the Carolingian abbey church, first with the west facade of the church, beginning in 1137. The old church front had a single door. Suger had a new facade designed, mimicking a Roman triumphal arch, with three doors. It also had the first known rose window built into it. It was completed in 1140, at which time, Suger took on rebuilding the east end of the church, leaving the Romanesque nave intact.
It is with the choir of the abbey of St. Denis that architectural history takes a great turn and opens up new worlds for the future. It is also where another major Medieval confusion enters the story.
It turns out that there were (at least) three people conflated into the Medieval understanding of who St. Denis was. In Latin, he was named Dionys, or sometimes Dionysius. There was a Dionysius named in the New Testament as a “The Areopagite,” who was converted by St. Paul (Acts of the Apostles 17:34). Despite being in different centuries and in different countries, few Medieval writers differentiated this biblical Dionysius from the French saint.
But more to the point, there was a fifth or sixth century writer, now known as the “Pseudo-Areopagite” who wrote a series of Neoplatonist tracts, who was thrown into the blender as well. This three-headed St. Dionysius or St. Denis was the person Abbot Suger knew in 1137 when he began the refurbishing of the abbey church. (You might ask if such a three-headed beast might well have been able to spare one to the executioner’s blade and still survive to carry it six miles to the place where he finally dropped dead).
Suger was a confirmed Neoplatonist, and the aspect of this philosophy/theology that most concerns us is the identification of deity with light.
“Suger, one might almost say, was infatuated with light,” wrote art historian Otto Von Simson in his 1956 book, The Gothic Cathedral.
So, when Suger commissioned the design of the new choir to the old abbey church, he or his anonymous architect rounded up several new innovations in building construction — the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, the flying buttress, and stained glass — and created what is usually considered the first genuinely Gothic statement of church architecture. The point of it all was to open up the dark Romanesque interior of the church to the glorious radiance of divine illumination.
The new structure was completed in 1144 and became the rage, inspiring all the new church construction in northern France and later spreading to the rest of Europe.
The innovations were brilliant, in both senses of the word. The light admitted to the stony interior of the church was a revelation.
Yet, when Suger died, the church was a stylistic gryphon, with a Romanesque head, Carolingian body and a Gothic tail. In 1231, Suger’s successor, Abbot Odo Clement began to replace the nave with an updated Gothic middle, heavy on the glass. He also remade the upper stories of Suger’s choir and finally, made the nave the resting place for French kings.
In 1264, the bones of 16 former kings and queens were relocated to new tombs arranged around the crossing, eight Carolingian monarchs to the south and eight Capetians to the north. Since then, all but three French monarchs from before the Revolution have found their resting place at St. Denis.
Their funeral effigies lie like so many tanning salon patrons in the nave and transepts. most of the effigies are of a much later date and not at all Gothic (with a few exceptions), but they don’t seem out of place. Again, this is the peculiar magic of the Gothic style. Nothing seems out of place in it: It absorbs everything and makes it part of itself.
And more than at any other Gothic church, the sunlight streams through the stained glass and colors the floors and walls with great patches of glowing red, blue and yellow. You look at the sarcophagus face of Cuthbert (or whatever his name was) and see it blue and red, covered in light like a disco dancer.
It is surprising to see how much vandalism had defaced the sculpture. The beautiful polished bosom of the angel in Philippe II’s tomb is covered with scratched initials and a few scurrilous obscenities. The faces of most of the kings and saints have been etched into with penknife or nail-point. You don’t notice it from a distance, but up close, you can read them. It doesn’t help that grit and grime have filled in the scribings, like ink in scrimshaw.
The tombs, the stained glass and the sculpture were all desecrated during the French Revolution, high as it was on anti-clericism, and were restored in the mid-19th century by Viollet-le-Duc and his colleagues.
By the 20th century, eons of soot had blackened the facade of St. Denis, and a thorough cleaning began, which only recently finished, unblackening the jamb statues and portals and tympanums.
St. Denis is oddly out of line: You may not notice it on first sight, but soon, you realize that the apse is not in line with the nave, and in fact, the nave itself has a kink in it. I don’t know if this was a mistake in execution, or because it happened over time, or did the master builder need to make slight adjustments based on bedrock or water table, or did they start from both ends and not quite meet up in the middle? No matter which, it helps give St. Denis an oddly organic feel, and gives it something of a Piranesi “carceri” kind of architectural idiosyncrasy.
I love the views through one set of piers on to a set of arches and behind that, a lineup of stained glass, layering on layering, or the odd cornering of a staircase against the well of the crypt doorway, with the deep penetration of the apse peeking in behind. The angles are complex and visually fascinating.
It is true that not much is left to be seen of Suger’s original design, but his intent is obvious: Outside of Sainte-Chapelle, no Gothic church we have visited is more brilliantly lit and colored by the streaming sunlight filtered through the stained glass, more fully committed to the principle that divinity is light, and the temple of the divine should glow and inspire.
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