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Chapter 1 Saint-Denis in History
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Chapter 1
Saint-Denis in History

Often called the cradle of Gothic art, Saint-Denis provides documentation crucial to an understanding of the formative period of the Gothic style in the Ile-de-France. In the 1130s and 1140s, Abbot Suger (1122–1151) sponsored building campaigns at Saint-Denis that sparked the new aesthetic. Constructional, formal, and theological ideas expressed in the architecture, monumental sculpture, and figurate glass of the windows in Suger's buildings quickly disseminated, developed, and resolved themselves into what we call today the Gothic style.[1] Scholars now agree that the three portals at Saint-Denis began the series of Early Gothic portails royaux. An innovation at Saint-Denis, twenty statue-columns, now lost, once flanked the portals. Representing mostly royal personages, such column-figures became the hallmark of Early Gothic portals. The less firmly dated but better preserved and more famous portail royal of the west facade at Chartres followed within the decade.

The sculptural programs on Gothic portals present in microcosm the Christian universe from the six days of Creation and the Fall of Man to the dreadful Day of Judgment. The building itself stood for the Heavenly Jerusalem, and the portals were the gates to paradise. During the Gothic period, such formulations of medieval thought attained great sophistication and complexity.

Yet the scholarly literature disputes whether the sculpture of the western portals at Saint-Denis culminated the High Romanesque period or, instead, merits the designation Gothic.[2] Although categorical definitions do not resolve the question, this study aims at clarifying distinctions between Romanesque and Early Gothic portal sculpture. In fact, the sculptural program of the western portals introduced concepts and aesthetic attitudes that distinguish it from High Romanesque portal programs. Even though many stylizations found in the figurate sculpture at Saint-Denis perpetuated motifs borrowed from the


vocabulary of Romanesque drapery conventions, the artists ceased to use individual figures as vehicles for agitated surface-patterns. Such Romanesque designs yielded to arrangements stabilized by gravity and responsive to pose and gesture. To a marked degree the handling of the fabrics reflected weight and texture, and draperies increasingly suggested the volume and form of the body beneath. The figures evinced a new restraint in gesture and movement, and out of respect for the integrity of the human form, the Saint-Denis artists no longer allowed anatomically impossible poses. The anatomical verisimilitude of the nude figures indicated the artists' knowledge of and interest in musculature and bone structure—a reflection of the dawning of Gothic humanism, which brought with it a new respect for the individual. Displaying considerable sophistication, the Saint-Denis artists also increased the salience of the figures as the distance from the eye level of the viewer increased. Thus they began to correct for optical perspective and, by overlapping some of the forms, even achieved the illusion of depth.

Especially in the central portal (Plate I) a new calm and a didactic clarity of composition replaced the excitement and turbulence of Romanesque compositions. Appealing to the emotions, those turbulent, monumental representations of the Last Judgment deserve the epithet “epics of chaos.”[3] But appealing instead to the intellect, the sculptural program of the three western portals at Saint-Denis presented a complex iconographical statement reflecting theological ideas then current in the Ile-de-France. Never in Romanesque portal programs do we find such complexities to challenge and inform the mind as those at Saint-Denis. Then, too, we no longer find the horror vacui characteristic of the crowded Romanesque compositions, where figures were often compressed to conform to the frames. Instead, negative spaces helped to organize interrelated themes and to emphasize the dominant ideas strategically located on the central axis. In the well-organized schema of the central portal, each part of the sculptural ensemble contributed to a unified statement. Indeed, when read in conjunction with the lateral portals, the interrelated themes acquired a significance and importance much greater than the sum of the parts. Unity emerges as one of the major characteristics of the Gothic style, whether architectural, sculptural, or iconographical. Thus, on compositional, formal, and iconographical grounds, the sculptural program of the central portal merits the designation Early Gothic rather than High Romanesque, even as we


recognize the survival of Romanesque conventions that do not always live harmoniously with the new aesthetic concepts.

Innovations distinguishing the Saint-Denis portal from High Romanesque representations of the Last Judgment, such as those at Moissac (1115) and Autun (1130s), occurred in what one critic has called a “creative environment,” achieved at Saint-Denis by the planning and patronage of Abbot Suger.[4] In 1091 Suger, aged ten and of humble origins, had been given by his parents to the abbey as an oblate. He was educated at the monastic school of Saint-Denis-de-l'Estrée—presumably for a short time in company with the heir to the French throne, the future Louis VI le Gros (1108–1137). Early on, Suger displayed the aptitude for administration and diplomacy that toward the end of his life earned him the post of coregent of France. He held the office from 1147 to 1149 during the absence of King Louis VII (1137–1180) on the ill-fated Second Crusade.[5] In two campaigns to enlarge and embellish the church, Suger achieved ambitions he had cherished even while a pupil. We know of his hopes and intentions from the record of his administration that he wrote “to save for the memory of posterity… those increments which the generous munificence of Almighty God had bestowed on the church” during his prelacy.[6]

As abbot and patron, Suger initiated campaigns to enlarge the church first to the west, then to the east. In the beginning, he left undisturbed the particularly venerated Carolingian nave, which he and his contemporaries believed had been built under the patronage of King Dagobert I (629–638). They had confused the eighth-century structure then extant with the seventh-century building, begun in circa 620. According to tradition, on the eve of the dedication ceremonies, Christ had descended miraculously to consecrate the nave of the earlier church.[7] After praising the “inestimable splendor” of the extant Carolingian structure, Suger stated that it was wanting only in size, for it could no longer accommodate the crowds that came on feast days to “seek the intercession of the saints.”[8] Dramatizing the deficiency, he described how “no one among the countless thousands of people because of their very density could move a foot…[or do] anything but stand like a marble statue, stay benumbed or, as a last resort, scream.” Women, he added, “squeezed by the mass of strong men as in a winepress, exhibited bloodless faces as in imagined death…[and] cried out horribly as though in labor.”[9]


Suger's westwork, or narthex, with its innovative triple-portal facade, was dedicated on 9 June 1140. To mark the occasion for posterity, Suger had the following words inscribed in copper-gilt letters on the facade:

For the splendor of the church that has fostered and exalted him, Suger has labored for the splendor of the church. Giving thee a share of what is thine, O Martyr Denis, He prays to thee to pray that he may obtain a share of Paradise. The year was the One Thousand, One Hundred, and Fortieth Year of the Word when [this structure] was consecrated.[10]

Four years later ceremonies consecrating the altars in the new crypt and choir signaled the completion of Suger's eastern extension.[11]

The artists and workers whom Suger summoned for the campaigns probably came from regions he had visited in his extensive travels.[12] Besides bringing “many masters from different nations” to Saint-Denis to paint the glass for the windows, he gathered masons, carvers, metalworkers, mosaicists, jewelers, and enamel workers—skilled artists in every medium—who formed their ateliers on the site.[13] In such an international gathering, the work of each master and his assistants would have reflected the training and aesthetic preferences of their own region. But their exposure to the work of others must have catalyzed the experimentation and interchange of ideas visible in the sculpture of the central portal.

Inexplicably, in recounting the two campaigns, Suger never mentioned the sculptural program of the western portals—not even the stunning and influential innovation of statue-columns in the stepped embrasures flanking the three doorways. Yet he referred to the mosaic (now lost), “which, though contrary to modern custom,” he had ordered for the tympanum of the left, or north, portal. He also quoted the inscription (also lost) that he had devised for the lintel of the central portal.[14] During his travels in Italy, he had doubtless seen the richly colored mosaics set in gold backgrounds on portals and in the apses and naves of churches and basilicas. But northern tastes probably would have found Suger's mosaic incongruous in a surround of stone carving.[15]

The brilliance and the gemlike refraction of light by the tesserae of mosaics would have had special appeal for Suger. He delighted in the sumptuous display of gold and gems embellishing altars and church furnishings and


rationalized that delight as a way to rise from material things to the immaterial or spiritual—“de materialibus ad immaterialibus.”[16] In the lines concluding the verses he composed for the gilded bronze doors of the central portal, he wrote:

The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.[17]

Then, referring to the gems of the altar furnishings, he rhapsodized:

Thus, when—out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God—the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.[18]

Much has been written linking Suger's anagogical method with the Christianized Neoplatonic view of the cosmos propounded in the Celestial Hierarchy and Mystical Theology of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, a sixth-century Near Eastern mystic.[19] In the ninth century, Abbot Hilduin (814–841) was the first to conflate St. Denis (in Latin, Sanctus Dionysius), the patron saint of the abbey, with Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite. The abbot also stated that the Pseudo-Areopagite and Dionysius the Athenian, whom St. Paul had converted to Christianity on the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:34), were one and the same.[20] Questioned only by Abelard in the twelfth century, the conflation of the three was fully accepted, even though the disciple of St. Paul had lived in the first century, the patron saint of the abbey in the third, and the Pseudo-Areopagite in the sixth.[21]

St. Denis had been sent from Rome in the third century to Christianize Gaul. After enduring numerous tortures for steadfastly refusing to renounce the Christian faith and worship Roman gods, he suffered martyrdom in 251 by order of the Roman consul Fescinius (Siscinnius). The execution took place in the village of Catulliacum, the present faubourg of Saint-Denis. Through the centuries those documentable facts were embellished until the fully developed legend of


the saint placed his martyrdom in Paris on Montmartre, in the company of two legendary and sainted companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius.[22] According to the legend, the night before the execution Christ himself administered the Eucharist to the three prisoners. After the execution by Roman soldiers, St. Denis is said to have picked up his severed head and, carrying it before him, walked due north to Catulliacum, thus choosing his place of burial. The legend states that as he made that miraculous walk, his lips chanted psalms in praise of the Lord.

Excavations and early texts attest to three, possibly four, earlier structures erected successively on the site of the saint's grave. Transcribed in the sixth century, the earliest known text on the martyrdom of St. Denis tells how a pious woman named Catulla erected a mausoleum above the saint's tomb.[23] Vestiges of Gallo-Roman masonry beneath the existing church suggest that a second-or third-century structure once existed near his grave.[24] Possibly those huge reused blocks came from the mausoleum first erected above his burial place.[25] The Life of Ste. Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris (d. ca. 512), which was written shortly after her death or in circa 520, never mentions a mausoleum or shrine, but according to her biographer the tomb was in a “terrible and fearful” place.[26] The first church documented by Crosby's excavations and dated to circa 475 was probably the one Ste. Geneviève persuaded the bishops of Paris to build in honor of St. Denis.[27] Excavations indicate that it was hardly more than a chapel. Then, under the patronage of Dagobert I, the chapel built on the urging of Ste. Geneviève was enlarged at the east and west to more than double the original size.[28] By the twelfth century, because of his lavish patronage of the building campaign, his costly gifts, and the royal privileges he granted the abbey, Dagobert was incorrectly credited by Suger and his contemporaries as the founder.[29] Around 755, Pepin the Short, king of the Franks (751–768), began the next church on the site, the one still extant in Suger's time. Completed by his son Charlemagne (768–814), the church was dedicated in 775 in the presence of the king and his court. But by the twelfth century, according to Suger, the building had aged to the point of “impending ruin in some places.”[30]

Determining first to renovate the Carolingian nave,[31] and then to enlarge and embellish the church, Suger also successfully strove to strengthen the power and authority of the French monarchy. Indeed, he saw the two goals as synonymous and believed that achieving both would reinforce the historical association of the monarchy and abbey in the eyes of his contemporaries.


From the time of Dagobert's father, Clothaire II (d. ca. 629), French monarchs had venerated St. Denis as their particular patron and protector, and, by extension, he became recognized as the patron saint of all France.[32] Legends of post-humous miracles occurring at the saint's shrine further emphasized St. Denis's role as protector of the monarchy.[33] The first known royal burials at Saint-Denis took place early in the Merovingian period; then from 987 on, with three exceptions, all kings and queens of France chose to be buried there.[34] Through the centuries, munificent royal gifts, grants, and privileges fostered the royal association and enriched the abbey until it became in name as well as in fact “the Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis.”[35]

Damage to the church over time unquestionably modified and depleted the architecture, sculpture, and ornament of Suger's campaigns. The portals could scarcely have escaped some mutilation in the fifteenth century during the Hundred Years' War, when the city and abbey were repeatedly assaulted and captured. Again in 1567, toward the end of the Wars of Religion, the abbey was the center of conflict and pillaging by the Huguenots.[36] Although no documents record the damage to the portals during those conflicts, the alterations and repairs undertaken in 1770 and 1771 attest to the deteriorated state of some of the sculpture. More than a restoration, the modifications forever altered the appearance of the three portals.

Most of the information about the work done in 1770 and 1771 comes from the eighteenth-century record of events at the abbey kept by Ferdinand-Albert Gautier, the organist of the church in the last decades of the century.[37] The central portal was enlarged to accommodate the royal catafalque and the elaborate canopies used in funerals and other ceremonial processions. To that end the trumeau figure depicting St. Denis as a bishop, which had divided the central portal, was eliminated, and at the same time the lintel bearing Suger's inscription was probably removed and replaced. The monks had also ordered the dismounting of the twenty statue-columns in the embrasures of the three door-ways, thereby robbing them of their most impressive attributes.[38] But we know from a marginal note in a nineteenth-century document that the statues were removed because of their ruined condition.[39]

Fortunately, earlier in the eighteenth century, Antoine Benoît had made drawings of all the statue-columns, the trumeau figure of St. Denis, and two column-figures from the cloister. When Bernard de Montfaucon published


Fig. 1.
Lost statue columns of the central portal.
Drawing by Antoine Benoît. After
Montfaucon 1[1729], pl. XVII

engravings of the drawings in 1729, he identified the portal figures as statues of the kings and queens of the Merovingian dynasty.[40] Because he misunderstood their significance, we have a record of the lost statues (Fig. 1). We now know that they depicted not the early rulers of France but the ancestors and precursors of Christ—the kings and prophets of the Old Testament.[41] One critic stated that Montfaucon had reproduced the drawings “tant bien que mal.”[42] Yet the engravings, together with Benoît's original drawings, have been used convincingly to identify the five surviving heads from the lost statue-columns as well as one of the figures from the cloister.[43]

The alterations of 1770–1771 also affected the jambs of all three portals. Gautier's account of the work has been misleading. Although he documented the chapter's wish to enlarge the central entrance, he failed to add that in the course of the alterations some of the masonry of the jambs had been dismantled and reassembled and the sculptures somewhat restored.[44] The more detailed notes kept by Ferdinand Francois, baron de Guilhermy, on work in progress on the portals in 1839–1840 nourished the generally held misconception that the jamb sculptures, particularly those of the lateral portals, had survived relatively unscathed and unrestored until the nineteenth century.[45] Possibly the jambs of the left and right portals were taken down and remounted in 1770–1771, but certainly their sculptures—the Signs of the Zodiac on the left portal and the


Labors of the Months on the right—were sensitively restored at that time.[46] Predictably, those smaller and quite delicate jamb carvings had been as vulnerable to the assaults of time, weather, and wars as the large-scale statue-columns in the adjacent embrasures.

Saint-Denis, the royal abbey and repository of the royal regalia, became the particularly hated target of the French Revolution. In 1793 the devastation began. To commemorate the anniversary of the downfall of the monarchy, the national committee ordered the destruction of the royal tombs and all vestiges of memorials to the monarchs of France and their families. Already begun in 1791, the violation of tombs gained momentum. After the royal tombs in the choir had been emptied, the central crypt, or caveau royal, of the Bourbon dynasty was breached and the tombs opened. The remains of the disinterred royalty were then thrown pell-mell into ditches in the cemetery outside the north transept and covered with quicklime. Gautier commented on the terrible stench from recent burials.[47] Not until October 1793 did the Parisian mobs arrive in the faubourg to storm the basilica. Although no documents record their damage to the abbey, surely we can blame the inflamed mobs for the systematic mutilation of the sculpture of the western portals.[48] Doubtless unaware that the figures in the archivolts of the central portal were the elders of the Apocalypse, the revolutionary zealots knocked off their crowned heads as well as those of most other figures in the three portals.[49]

In the ensuing months, the church, stripped of its golden altar frontals, costly altar furnishings, royal regalia, and centuries of accumulated treasures, served first as a temple for the Cult of Reason and subsequently as a granary. By April 1794 the building had become uninhabitable. In that year the three sets of bronze doors in the western portals went to the mint to be melted down.[50] The roof had been stripped of its lead sheathing—a depredation that exposed the building to the elements—and many of the dismantled royal tombs went piece by piece to the depot of the Petits Augustins in Paris to be inaccurately reassembled by Alexandre Lenoir and put on exhibition in his Musée des Monuments francais.[51] Fortunately, a proposal to bombard the facade and knock down the spire was voted down on the grounds that the spire might in some circumstances serve as an observation point.[52] A decision to dismantle the vaults of the nave and build a cover over the lower stories was never implemented, but the prospect emboldened Lenoir to strip the north transept portal


of its statue-columns and dismount other architectural ornament, sculpture, and the glass of the windows for display in his museum.

Thus despoiled, Saint-Denis was in danger of falling into ruin. Describing the deserted and derelict abbey, one observer wrote, “The birds make their passage through it, grass grows on the broken altars. Instead of the sung litanies of the dead that once echoed under its vaults, one hears only drops of rain that fall on the open roof, the tumble of stones breaking off from the ruined walls, or the clock resounding in the empty tombs and devastated crypts.”[53]

Saved from complete destruction in the early nineteenth century,[54] the once-royal abbey was next subjected to a mindless reconstruction, ordered by Napoleon in 1806. Hoping to enhance his imperial dignity by associating himself with the pantheon of the French monarchy, Napoleon determined to repossess the abbey as an imperial mausoleum for his dynasty. One of the initial works of the reconstruction—the only one affecting the western portals—involved the raising of the level of the pavement of the western bays and of the parterre in front of the portals.[55] Stunting the proportions of the portals, those two alterations persist to this day (compare Figs. 2 and 3).[56] Reroofing the structure and reglazing the windows closed out the elements. But not confined to reclaiming the abbey from wind and weather and reestablishing the Catholic cult, Napoleon's orders to embellish the church resulted in alterations that threatened the stability of the building. As the transformation of the interior of the abbey progressed in accordance with the tastes of the Empire period, the shaving of piers and bases prior to facing them with black marble, the sapping of supports in the crypt, and the paring of all the exterior mural surfaces to refurbish them put the building in dangerous disequilibrium. Expenditures for sculptures and the other imperial embellishments greatly exceeded the allotted funds. Although some of the sculptural works were abandoned unfinished, pretentious marble and limestone groups of figures ordered as memorials to the earlier dynasties still gather dust in chapels of the crypt.

Three successive architects-in-chief from 1805 to 1845 squandered millions of francs in compromising the twelfth- and thirteenth-century building and its ornament.[57] Following the orders of Napoleon or the whims of the restored Bourbons, each architect left a heavy-handed imprint on the architecture and ornament of the church.


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Chapter 1 Saint-Denis in History
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