June 11: The Original Goth

2016/06/11 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1144 additions to the Carolingian basilica of St. Denis were dedicated.

It’s not often that major historical movements in architecture have such a specific start date, but this church north of Paris is as close to the crack of a starting pistol as anything.  That is due not just to the church (or, specifically, the east end/chevet of the church) but rather due to the presence of a singular patron who reveals that Gothic–while certainly expressed in amazing structural acrobatics–is not first and foremost about structure–or even architecture–itself.

The church was and is dedicated to Saint-Denis (d. ca. 250), the first bishop of Paris and one of the best martyrs ever.  Denis was beheaded in the midst of a sermon by Romans (of course).  But, like any good professor, a little physical discomfort would not keep him from concluding his thesis.  He picked up his head, carried it outside of town, and upon concluding his sermon, laid it down, and died.  On that site a shrine developed, followed by a basilica, and finally the enlarged church begun by Abbot Suger (1081-1151) in the twelfth century.

Suger was a brilliant cleric, theologian and philosopher who maintained that beauty–physical beauty of material objects–was an integral part of worship.  His theory is memorialized not only in the construction of the building, but also inscribed on its very walls:

            The noble work is bright, but, being nobly bright, the work

            Should brighten the minds, allowing them to travel through the lights

            To the true light, where Christ is the true door

            The golden door defines how it is imminent in these things

            The dull mind rises to the truth through material things

Imagining a basilica that would not only house worship, but manifest a splendid and extraordinary vision of Heavenly Jerusalem on earth, he encouraged builders to maximize the amount of wall that could be carved away to make way for increased windows filled with stained glass.  Thinking of this as just colored glass is missing the point: it is deeply stained, not intended to be bright, so that it modulates light, makes it rich with jewel tones.  This is not light to perform surgery by; it is the light of Heaven miraculously introduced into an earthly worship space.  As impressive as it is now, imagine what it must have been for twelfth-century worshippers who hung greased skins and parchment in the holes of their hovels to admit a bit of light.

Suger’s brilliant but long-forgotten builders responded with a more focused development of a point-support system, carrying vault weight down through  ribs and into slender columns and colonettes.  This was the invention of Gothic: seen most easily in a structural system that diverged sharply from the heavy Romanesque that preceded it.  A technical development, yes, but not for technology’s sake alone.  Here, technology serves the experience of faith.  That is Gothic architecture, and Suger’s dazzling achievement.

Image: tympanum sculpture of St.-Denis, post-chop and mid-lecture (Clio’s)

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