Great Moments in Catholic History
Fr. Jacques Monet, S.J. 

09 The Beginning of Gothic

Abbot Suger and the choir of Saint-Denis

It was a glorious and sunlit day over the daisies, little plain lilies, and clean green fields of the Ile-de-France. A great crowd had assembled in front of the great unfinished facade of the new church for the royal Abbey of Saint-Denis: military, clerical, professional groups; hundreds of peasants; an army of guildsmen, metalworkers, wood-carvers, scaffold-makers, sculptors, painters, stonemasons, carpenters and goldsmiths, a company of chanters, canopy-upholders, acolytes, thurifers, monks, subdeacons, deacons, abbots, fourteen bishops and five archbishops.

The crowd had gathered for the dedication of the sanctuary choir, which, as the heart of a church, was always started and finished first. But especially it had come to see the new building for the first time. All realized -- from the humblest peasant and metal-worker to King Louis VII himself -- that in this choir something new and very important had come into the world.

The choir of the Abbey church of Saint-Denis was the first Gothic structure.

Before the day, June 11, A.D. 1144, was out, the eyes of all would be full of the height and reaches of the great vault, of the serenity and spaciousness of the as-yet-unfinished naves of the beautifully toned violets, blues, and rich crimsons of the glass. And the minds of all would be wondering how those rainbows that dreams are made of could have been so successfully brought down to earth and anchored in tall narrow walls.

Gothic (although it would not be called that before Raphael did so at the turn of the 1500's) had been imagined on an undated but critically historic morning some three years earlier when Abbot Suger, walking about the site with his master-of-the-works, had fitted his walking stick to wave a pointed arch into the air. Why not try a new treatment? Might not diagonal arches, light pillars, and buttresses thrust the vaults higher than ever before and allow expanses of stained glass, instead of stone, to be fitted all around and up high on the walls?

As if by magic, within three years, the unprecedented design had sprung up with its wonder-working arches, twinkling with light, a design most worthy of its creator and of his patron, Saint Denis.

Abbot Suger was one of the great monks of the Middle Ages. He had entered the Abbey of Saint-Denis, a poor but exceedingly capable peasant boy of ten, and risen to become its abbot in 1122. He became the friend and advisor of kings, the wise counsellor of popes, a diplomat, military leaders, and tutor to the royal family . After serving as regent during King Louis VII's absence on the Second Crusade, he had continued as prime minister and as the leading influence in the public life of the kingdom.

Suger was a great man of affairs. But he was also a man of culture and of prayer. For Saint-Denis he wanted nothing but the best in good taste, the most modern in art. The abbey was a royal one and one of the oldest in France. It had been founded by King Dagobert about A.D. 620 on the site where, according to tradition, the body of the martyr Saint Denis the Areopagite had been buried, and it was itself the burial ground of French kings.

Also, it held the great oriflamme, the banner of Saint Denis: bright vermilion silk, set off on a staff of silver and gold, which, in the sun, seemed alive with fire, and which the kings of France carried into battle to guarantee victory.

It was for the glory of God, as the royal tomb of kings, as a reliquary for the oriflamme, that Suger had created the far-flung arches and scintillating panes of the whole lovely and powerful ensemble.

Could Suger also understand the full significance of what he had begun? The possibilities for revolutionizing construction, for making the world more beautiful? Within decades, throughout northern France, 80 cathedrals and almost 500 abbeys would be erected, while in England, Germany, and Spain hundreds more reproduced the Gothic insight. Gothic spires began to rise in prayer, Gothic figures to express a renewed humanity, and sunlight traversing the coloured glass of Gothic vaults added new hope to the miraculous interiors that drew the human mind and heart towards God.

    Return to Table of Contents