Gothic Art and Abbe Suger

Abbot Suger's idea of 'lux continua' transformed the dark, solemn churches of Romanesque tradition into magnificent halls of spiritual and actual radiance.
It is curious how many of the terms for famous art movements were coined in a fit of pique, meant to offend rather than to exalt. So it is with Gothic Art. The first person to call it 'Gothic' was Raphael. This type of art, it is clear, aroused nothing but profound irritation in him. Furthermore, it was the handiwork of the descendants of the barbarians - the Goths - that had knelled the doom of the magnificent Roman Civilization that so appealed to Raphael and his Renaissance brethren. Hence the insulting term, Gothic. It became respectable only later on in modern times.

The originator of Gothic Art, Abbot Suger, might have been very surprised to hear of Raphael's dubbing. Aside from the fact that it wouldn't have occurred to him, from his perspective, to think of himself as a barbarian, his term for his innovation was 'lux continua', the unbroken light. It entirely transformed the dark, solemn churches of Romanesque tradition into magnificent halls of spiritual and actual radiance.

Abbot Suger

Abbot Suger, who brought about this revolution, began life in very humble, poverty-stricken circumstances. He was born in 1081 in Saint-Denis, a small town on the outskirts of Paris, and from an early age appears to have been one of those that destiny marks out as a special favorite.

His fruitful and long association with the Church of Saint-Denis began when, in 1091, he was accepted as a student in the Church school. It was here that he met and befriended the future King of France, Louis VI, also known as Louis The Fat. This close friendship was to prove very beneficial to Suger.

After finishing school, Suger worked his way up through numerous prestigious posts that included Secretary to the Abbot of Saint-Denis, Provost of first Berneval in Normandy and then Toury, and then as the King's Ambassador to the Holy See.

Louis VI died in 1137 and then Suger became Adviser to his son Louis VII. It was on his advise that Louis VII married Eleanor of Aquitaine, and later when the two embarked on the Second Crusade, he looked after the State Affairs in France.

Suger became the Abbot of Saint-Denis in 1122. The post made him a very wealthy and powerful man, as he was now personally responsible for the administration of the vast, rich tracts of lands connected with the Saint-Denis Carolingian Church.

The Church itself was a very old building that had been consecrated by Charlemagne himself in 775 and probably hadn't seen a touch of paint ever since. Abbot Suger, who, by both his own inclination and his Royal association, had come to appreciate the finer aspects of life, decided to rectify things and overhaul the entire look of the Church.

He was inspired by the changes brought about at Monte Cassino by Abbot Desiderio and by the architecture of the Cathedral of Canterbury. The latter was famous for 'the light of its glass windows'.

Artisans from the Low Countries and from Italy were summoned, no expenses were spared, and the whole edifice was face-lifted between 1135 and 1144 - an astonishing record, especially for those times - and at the end the Church building had been transformed beyond recognition. It now had a new monumental facade added on the Western side, with bronze, beautifully sculptured doors; its interior had been brightened by rich, colorful mosaics; its ceiling extended heavenwards with ribbed vaulting; and fourteen tall stained-glass windows bathed the sanctuary in glorious light and drew awed attention to the dazzling jewel-encrusted altar.

Stained-glass windows had been present in Romanesque Churches earlier, but nobody before Abbot Suger had conceived of using them widely in this extraordinary manner. The most important and eye-catching of the Saint-Denis windows, of course, is the one featuring the Abbot himself at the Virgin's feet; a curious, vanity-filled attempt to convey abject humility, but that little matter aside, a beautiful work of art.

Abbot Suger had achieved his intention of making his Church a place that would celebrate the Holy Light, not quench it. The Church of Saint-Denis was consecrated on 10 June 1144 in the presence of King Louis VI and Queen Eleanor, with everybody who was somebody in Medieval France in pious attendance.

Abbot Suger died seven years later, on 13 January 1151, but his idea had taken firm hold. Anybody who had been inside his radiant creation had no more wish ever after to pray in subdued darkness, and this became apparent in the Cathedrals that began to be built or renovated on the principle of 'lux continua' afterwards.
By Sonal Panse
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