Post 738 -by Gautam Shah
Part I of series IV
1 ABOUT ABBOT SUGER —
Abbot Suger (1081–1151) was a priest, statesman and good administrator, but was not an Architect (as assumed in the 19th and early 20th C.) And, yet, he has been called the father of Gothic architecture and design innovator. Suger is known for rebuilding of the Abbey of St.-Denis also known as Cathedral Basilica of St Denis, near Paris. The rebuilding included many trend-setting features marking, the emergence of Gothic style over the Romanesque, in France.
Suger at the age of 10, came to the Abbey of St.-Denis. He became an Oblate, in 1091, for his education in religion. The Abbey church of St. Denis was established in the late 5th C., to house the relics of St. Denis, a bishop martyred on his mission to convert the Gauls in the 3rd C. Here, at the Abbey, he met the future king Louis VI of France. An epitaph conveys the iron will of Abbot Suger, ‘he was small in physical and social stature, driven by his double smallness, refused, in his smallness, to be small’. Suger served as the friend and counselor for both of Louis VI and Louis VII. He travelled extensively, and had a special relationship with the pope, bishops and kings, serving as adviser to Louis VI and Louis VII.
Suger became a secretary to the abbot of Saint-Denis, then became provost of Berneval in Normandy and Toury, in 1118. His contacts with Louis VI helped him to go to the court of Pope Gelasius II at Maguelonne (at Montpellier, Gulf of Lyon). He also lived at the court of Calixtus II, as the successor of Gelasius. On his return from Maguelonne, Suger became Abbot of St-Denis. During the following decade, he devoted himself to the reorganization and reform of St-Denis. He began reconstructing the old building in 1135. From 1140 to 1144, ‘in three years, three months and three days’, as he put it, he built a new Chevet.
Abbot Roger was a clever politician and smart manager, who used his church position to promote the abbey in public, and thereby enhanced the power of the monarchy. ‘His knowledge of the law, skill for political negotiations, influential contacts and oratory skills’, were his assets. Suger needed political clout and huge amounts to build such a structure. He was the favoured person of the king. He was consulted for many other things by the French state. He oversaw the royal administration, when the King Louis VII was absent on the Crusades. King appointed him to serve as the Regent of France.
Suger was the coordinator or convener of the rebuilding project for the abbey. He was not an architect, but an extra ordinary organizer. He had keen sense of judgement in arts and crafts. There were two architects or master masons, who were technical leaders, but their contributions remain anonymous.
2 ABOUT ABBEY of ST DENIS —
The site of Abbey of St.-Denis is identified as a Gallo-Roman cemetery of the Roman times. Around, 475 AD. St. Genevieve purchased some land, and built Saint-Denys de la Chapelle. In 636 AD., the relics of Saint Denis (also known as Saint Dionysius), the patron saint of France, were re-interned in the basilica.
The Basilica of St Denis ranks as an architectural landmark and as the first major structure of which a substantial part was re-designed and built in the Gothic style. Both stylistically and structurally, it heralded the change from Romanesque architecture to Gothic architecture. H.W. Janson wrote, ‘The origin of previous style cannot be pinpointed exactly, as the Gothic. It was born between 1137 and 1144 with the rebuilding of the Royal Abbey Church of Saint-Denis by Abbot Suger. Before the term ‘Gothic’ came into common use, it was known as the ‘French Style’ (Opus Francigenum). (The word ‘Gothic’ was first used during the Renaissance period, as an insult, as relating to the uncivilized ancient Goths, Germanic-people documented living near lower Vistula River).
The basilica of Saint-Denis, like many other Christian religious places, was popular for pilgrimage in 12th C. Many churches of Romanesque style of architecture, with their solid forms and barely adequate openings, were suffocating places in warm seasons. It was difficult to manage the large crowds in limited and zoned space. For this reason many processions and festivities were organized out doors. But the crowds wished to visit the crypts that held the remains of the past kings and saints of France.
Paris was the principal residence of the Kings and of The Reims Cathedral was used as the place of coronation, and the Abbey of Saint-Denis has been the ceremonial burial place. The visitations by royalty for public adulation helped get support for the church expenses. They lavishly supported the construction and enlargement of abbeys and cathedrals. Suger showed that collaboration between church and state is fundamental to an understanding of the development of the national states of Western Europe.
3 ABBOT SUGER and POPULAR CHANGES —
Suger on assuming the post of Abbot was almost ready with a scheme to redevelop the entire estate of Basilica of St Denis. That included not only the church itself, but also a new refectory, dormitory and domus hospitium (guesthouse like a dormitory) and other structures across the grounds of the abbey. Abbot Suger wanted crowds to participate and fund the redevelopment of the abbey. He had to convince the people and the royalty that larger spaces and better environments for gatherings are required. He knew, the abbey was just too important a national identity and just cannot be demolished to the foundation level for reconstruction. He also had to stay away from sacrosanct areas like the crypt holding the remains of the past kings of France. He planned his project in several plausible phases. He had the foresight that for a project of this nature will need many crafts-persons will be required, and will need to be enticed from far-off places.
The West side of the church was about 200 years old, and had only one small entrance door. Suger planned three wide doors to handle large crowds. These doors were like the arches on Constantine in Rome. Early Christian and Byzantine basilicas and churches had such entrance or lobby space, and Sugar adopted the idea. He first took up the building of a new Narthex and entrance Facade, with two towers and a rose window in the centre. The rose window was a first one in France. This was an impressive and a populist step. After Abbot Suger’s death, however, when the rest of the church was rebuilt in a new style, it was provided with extra larger and more decorated rose windows, one on either side.
After the alteration and extension of the West side, It was easy to find sponsors with substantial support. Next, he began to change the East end. Here, Sugar began to implement ideas about illumination. He wanted the space around the altar to be spatially wide and tall. He wanted it to be very light and bright, with the provisions of coloured glass windows. The light and bright East end was ‘given to God’ in 1144. These were well appreciated, and within decades this ‘inventive intervention’ spread throughout all of Europe, where it dominated the architecture for the next two to three hundred years. In the 12th C, Abbot Suger rebuilt portions of the abbey church using innovative structural and decorative features. In doing so, he is said to have created the first truly Gothic building.
The pair of towers on the west-side were planned under Suger, however only the southern tower was completed in his lifetime. Its taller northern counterpart, was completed by one of his successors, however, did not last. It was rebuilt twice. Suger saw the completion of the western and eastern ends of the abbey. By the time abbot died in 1151, the foundations for the new nave were executed. Work for the Nave with upper works of the Choir resumed in 1231. In 281 the nave was completed. The massive windows and slender masonry were a trend setting Rayonnant Gothic style.
The ground plan of most Gothic churches is typically a cross, formed by a long Nave and crossing it, a shorter Transept. It is this junction that offers a spacious volume. The nave usually has multiple floors on either sides, forming passageways or aisles. The Nave, after the cross junction terminates into a semi-circular or polygonal Eastern end. This liturgical end with the altar is tallest space with many varieties of roof structure. Visually the extensive tall surface being circular or polygonal, competes with the altar for attention. The cross form of the church created four focal areas. Each of these had different size, shape, scale and orientations. Suger had learnt from existing church buildings the purpose of these basic four spaces.