How a canny abbot and an unknown architect let in the light
By the time he was elected abbot in 1122, Suger of St.-Denis had already spent 30 years in a monastery. But he was far from unworldly. The abbey at St.-Denis, where Suger's parents had deposited him at an early age, was home to such young notables as Louis VI, future king of France. Suger made connections that later served him well; he even ruled France For a time, while Louis VII, son of his boyhood friend, was off crusading. In an era of expanding partnerships between church and monarchy, Suger's ecclesiastical zeal and political acumen made him nearly unstoppable--and changed the course of architecture.
As abbot of St.-Denis, just north of Paris, Suger's first priority was to fatten the monastery's purse. He secured royal donations, enlarged the abbey's landholdings, and won a concession for one of the region's big annual trade fairs. Yet Suger's worldliness had religious roots. He was deeply influenced by a sixth-century neo-Platonic text in the abbey. Written by an unknown Syrian, it held that the visible, material world is symbolic of the divine realm. So when Suger decided to renovate St.-Denis's abbey church with the revenues he had collected, he felt justified in spending lavishly.
Partly because Ile-de-France--the province that encompassed both Paris and St.-Denis--lacked a strong tradition of church construction, the architect for the redesigned abbey church probably felt a certain freedom to experiment. His identity is unknown today, but the designer was almost certainly influenced by Suger's beloved text, which identified light with the divine presence.
Light was a scarce commodity in churches built in the prevailing Romanesque architectural style, which Emory University art history professor Elizabeth Pastan likens to "two people standing and holding something horizontally between them, so the weight is supported by hoisting." Romanesque churches had heavy barrel-vaulted ceilings, like the roof of a tunnel, which required stout walls for support. That meant few windows and a gloomy interior. All that changed in the revamped choir at St.-Denis.
Heavenly Jerusalem. A semicircular chamber flanked by seven side chapels, the choir combined two new technologies. One was the pointed arch, which behaves like "two people leaning with their arms against each other," says Pastan. "The weight is totally displaced," which allowed for lighter construction. The other was the ribbed vault, which used curved "ribs" to distribute the weight of the ceiling to slender columns. St.-Denis didn't mark the debut of either feature; the ribbed vault shows up in a few earlier European churches, and the pointed arch is widespread in Islamic architecture. But the rebuilt choir combined them to achieve an entirely new effect. Lightening the structure and relying on columns rather than walls for support opened up wide sweeps of interior space and allowed for thinner walls that could frame massive stained-glass windows. The church's west facade was pierced by what is thought to be the world's first rose window. By comparison with earlier European churches, the interior of St.-Denis's choir seemed a heavenly Jerusalem, light enough to float. Its consecration in 1144 marked the birth of Gothic architecture.