AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART I: Saint Denis and Gothic Art

SAINT DENIS AND GOTHIC ART

The royal abbey of Saint Denis is the first structure to be (re)built in what is now referred to as the Gothic style. The design, construction, furnishing and decorating of the new church were initiated and overseen by Suger, the abbot of Saint Dénis. Suger composed De Administratione, a descriptive record of the project, in which he provides a narrative of the building campaign justifies its huge cost, explains the spiritual and liturgical function of some of the artworks.

At the time Suger wrote his account, the east end and the west façade of the church had been finished, linked together by the nave of the ninth-century fabric.To a twelfth-century viewer the new church would have seemed aggressively modern, rejecting traditional solutions and radically reconceiving others. Making use of cutting-edge architectural technologies like ribbed groin vaulting, the pointed arch, and the flying buttress, which bear weight more efficiently, the masons did away with the need for the massive supporting walls found in Romanesque architecture. This allowed for the opening-up of the ambulatory and radiating chapels, and for the installation of very large stained glass windows which suffuse the chevet with colored light. On the west front, the three entrances are fitted out with complex, highly ordered sculptural programs that extended out from the tympanum relief to the voussoirs and down into the jambs and trumeau, the different architectural zones demarcating and framing central and subsidiary elements of the iconography. Surmounting the portals is a rose window. This arrangement of three sculpted entrances, a rose and twin bell towers, along with the ribbed vaulting, pointed arches and stained glass, immediately became canonical, being used in all the major Gothic cathedrals that followed, including Chartres, Paris, Reims and Amiens.

Saint Dénis influence is partly due to the fact that the abbey has an exclusive and long-standing relationship with the French monarchy, dating back to the Carolingian period and since the burial of Charles the Bald in the nave of Saint Dénis, the abbey church served as the royal necropolis. Suger, an advisor to Louis VII, emphasizes the abbey’s royal connections in De Administratione and the iconography of the sculpture and glass includes images of Old Testament kingship, including the Tree of Jesse and jamb figures portraying Old Testament kings and queens.

The explicit association at Saint Denis of the new Gothic style with the monarchy coincides with the vast increase of political power and land-based wealth made by the Capetians in the twelfth century, which led to the rapid diffusion of the Gothic or “royal” style in the territories newly-controlled by the King. These associations persisted through the eighteenth century, when the French revolutionaries destroyed much of the church-based great medieval works of art because they offended their secularizing and anti-monarchical beliefs.

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