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.
Suger's detractors frowned at the lavishness of his spruced-up church, but the abbot defended his renovations as necessary to accommodate the swelling crowds that St.-Denis was drawing on feast days. "The narrowness of the place forced the women to run toward the altar upon the heads of men as upon a pavement," Suger wrote of the old structure, "with much anguish and noisy confusion." The abbot was exaggerating, but 12th-century France did see a sharp spike in church attendance. As town lords and bishops (the same man often held both positions) stamped out the lawlessness that marked Europe in earlier centuries, members of the upper class felt safe enough to embark on pilgrimages. They often trekked south through France to Spain's Santiago de Compostela, the traditional burial place of the apostle James, stopping at churches along the way.
Building boom. The worshipers contributed to an economic boom that helped spread the innovations of St.-Denis in a wave of cathedral building. On religious feast days, while churches lured worshipers with displays of holy relics (some churches sent relics on full-fledged European fundraising tours), tradespeople set up shop outside. "Merchants knew there were crowds on feast days, so they'd go--and more people would attend feast days because more merchants were there," says Robin Oggins, a history professor at Binghamton University and author of Cathedrals. "Some of it was religious, some of it was curiosity, and some of it was good shopping." A surge in agricultural production, the advent of currencies, and increased trade also fed the boom, and the church, which owned virtually all the means of production--from land to mills to wine presses--was able to cash in to fund its "cathedral crusade." From 1050 to 1350, some experts estimate, more stone went into church building in France than was used in all the monuments of ancient Egypt.
It was the rebuilding of the Chartres Cathedral, wrecked by fire in 1194, that propelled France into the High Gothic Age. Completed in roughly 30 years, Chartres soared to 120 feet, more than twice the height of most earlier cathedrals. While high ceilings traditionally drew extra support from spur buttresses--thick stone reinforcements that crawl up the church's exterior--Chartres relied on flying buttresses, stone braces that jump from the cathedral's upper stories to rows of supporting piers set back from the building. By displacing the ceiling's weight onto exterior supports, flying buttresses freed up wall space for giant stained-glass windows that depicted religious scenes replete with images of Middle Age guildsmen, like bakers and wheelwrights. Long believed to be funded by the guilds, the windows may have actually been advertisements by the church, shrewdly trying to draw support from prosperous guild members.
The cathedral's towering interior achieved a new unity of design, with pillars of bundled columns leading seamlessly into the ceiling's individual ribs. Such inventiveness was repeated across northern France, as cathedrals built or rebuilt at Sens, Paris, and Bourges exhibited audaciously novel designs. "It's not like the Renaissance, where the belief was that there's a right way to make a building, and you had to discover that way," says Stephen Murray, professor of art history at Columbia University. "In Gothic times, there was no accepted archetype." Murray attributes some of the stunning originality displayed in the cathedrals to a Freudian dynamic in local stone mason guilds, which encompassed generations of fathers and sons. "Sons tend to mimic their fathers," he says, "and then subvert them."
Competition among the burgeoning towns may also have spurred creativity during France's building blitz, which between the 11th and 14th centuries saw the construction of dozens of cathedrals, hundreds of large churches, and tens of thousands of smaller ones. Which isn't to say that the locals always cheered the construction efforts. Angered by the church's demands for cash, the burghers of Reims staged a riot in 1233 that forced the cathedral's governing body to flee town, halting construction. "The more power a bishop had economically, the harder it was for him to produce a cathedral," says Oggins. "Chances were higher that he'd provoke a violent backlash from townsfolk."
As long as the church could still tap into the bustling economy, though, cathedral building continued at full throttle, entering a new phase in the 1230s known as Rayonnant Gothic. Epitomized by Paris's Ste.-Chapelle and the Church of St.-Urbain at Troyes, the style introduced a new interior consistency by eliminating the distinct horizontal levels of earlier churches. But by the time the Hundred Years' War and the bubonic plague struck France in the 14th century, the flash of cathedral construction had long begun to fade. "In the 1240s," says Murray, "the king realized that he could tap into the money that the church was getting and use it to fight the crusade." The cash that had gone to creating a heavenly Jerusalem in France went instead to recovering the earthly Jerusalem abroad.
This story appears in the June 30, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.