Wednesday, August 20, 2008

St. Denis Abbey Church

The Abbey of St. Denis is situated in a small municipality (now a suburb) of the same name, about 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) north of Paris. Its thirty-sixth abbot, Suger (1081–1151), commissioned the present church from about 1140. It is a milestone in the history of architecture because, like Durham Cathedral in England, it has in it the seeds of a new way of building for Europe: the highly inventive structural system that we know as the Gothic. In particular, Suger’s choir at St. Denis, the first application of pointed arches in a major building, marks one aspect of the transition from the Romanesque style, which was quite hobbled by the use of round-headed arches; that is, the transition from wall architecture to framed architecture.

Denis, first bishop of Lutetia, and his missionary companions were martyred in 258, and buried at St. Denis. When the persecutions ended in the fourth century, a small chapel was built that became a popular shrine for pilgrims by the end of the sixth century. The Merovingian king Dagobert founded a Benedictine monastery there in 630, replacing the chapel with a large basilica and enriching the new royal abbey. He also bestowed many rights and privileges on the little town, not least the honor of building his tomb. Eventually, the abbey was to house seventy royal sepulchers. Charlemagne, king of the Franks, commissioned a new church in 750 and much of the earlier building was subsumed. Systemic reforms were introduced by Abbot Hilduin (815–830; ca. 831–840) during his second term of office, and the Abbey of St. Denis, because of the relics it held, grew in significance and prosperity. In about 1127 Suger assumed the position of abbot, to which he had been elected in Rome five years earlier.

Between 1123 and 1127, as adviser to Louis VI (reigned 1108–1137), he was engrossed in affairs of state but soon after he set out to thoroughly reform his monastery, first of all establishing a more rigorous discipline for the monks and dealing with its financial problems. Then he turned to the building. The old abbey church had been completed in 775, and by the middle of the twelfth century it had become dilapidated; from 1135 Abbot Suger initiated an extensive renovation program. His motives have been widely discussed by historians; it is clear that he was moved by religious and esthetic sensibilities, but because St. Denis was the royal abbey (and thus a symbol of royal power), its renovation was also a political statement at a time of unrest in France. In fact, the only loyal region to Louis VI was the Ile-de-France, and it was in the king’s interest to patronize the rebuilding of the church.

Suger wrote an account of his renovation program titled A Little Book on the Consecration of the Church of Saint Denis. The first major phase was the reconstruction of the west facade and the narthex: “dismantling a certain addition said to have been built by Charlemagne we … vehemently [enlarged] the body of the church, tripling the entrance and doors, and erecting tall, worthy towers.” Only the northeastern tower survives. The new monumental west front, built in the dour Romanesque style, had a high rose window above the central portal, admitting more light into the church. But the critical part of Suger’s work—his architectural feat—is in the choir at the east end of the church.

The new choir was built over the ninth-century crypt. Its seven chapels, radiating from a semicircular ambulatory and integrated with it, formed the first example of the distinguishing element of French Gothic architecture, the chevet. Supported on slender cylindrical columns standing on square bases, it comprises ribbed stone vaults in which a regular network of pointed—not semicircular—arches carries thin panels. It is likely that the idea of the pointed arch (an Arab invention) was brought back to France by masons who had accompanied the First Crusade (1095). The device made the height of the arch independent of its span and allowed a much more accurate structural frame to be developed, in which loads could be gathered at columns and sideways thrusts resisted by buttresses. The walls, freed from their load-bearing function, could then be thinner and penetrated by more and larger windows. What was first done at St. Denis was developed and refined to produce the luminous interiors of the thirteenth century, like St. Chapelle in Paris (1248).

Suger, impressed with fifth-century ideas, was fascinated by the role of light in churches. God is light, and his creation, ordered by his light, praises him by reflecting light back to him. That applied to inanimate things, such as precious stones and stained glass, as much as to people. Therefore his additions to St. Denis were lit by glorious stained-glass windows and “worthily painted with gold and costly colors.” The choir was a repository for the relics and remains of St. Denis and was afforded the most extravagant treatment, provided with the help of Abbot Suger’s close friend Louis VII, who came to the French throne in 1137. The pulpit was made of sculptured ivory tablets decorated with figures wrought from copper. The morning altar was of black marble, with sculptures of the martyrdom of St. Denis in white marble, and the high altar was surrounded by gold sides enriched with precious stones, with figures in relief. Suger declared himself so overcome by the sight of it that he thought he was no longer on Earth, but near Paradise. He insisted that “we must do homage also through outward ornaments … with all inner purity and with all outward splendor.” Not all his contemporaries agreed, and there was a protracted debate between Suger and Bernard of Clairvaux, Abbot of Cluny, about the propriety of opulence in the house of God. The choir was completed in 1144, having taken three years and three months. To achieve it, masons and other craftsmen had been gathered from all over France. But none was acknowledged in Suger’s report of the project; he claimed all the credit for himself, having a memorial stone inscribed “Bright is the noble work enlarged in our time, I, who was Suger, having been leader while it was accomplished.”

Although he was “eager … to follow up on [his] successes,” by the time the choir was built the abbey’s funds had been depleted. The nave and transepts were not rebuilt until the fourteenth century, under the supervision of the mason-architect Pierre of Montreuil. After the Council of Trent (1545–1563), the abbey was placed at the head of a body of ten other monasteries; these were joined in 1633 to the Benedictine Congregation of Saint-Marui. Although its monastic buildings were reconstructed, the great church remained intact. About sixty years later, Louis XVI suppressed the abbot’s office. The abbey was eventually dissolved during the French Revolution, when the church was vandalized. In the nineteenth century it was restored by the architect E. E. Viollet-le-Duc and is now a national monument. Today its greatest threat comes from air pollution.

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