(b. 1081- d. 1151)
“In the twenty-third year of our administration, when we sat on a certain day in the general chapter, conferring with our brethren about matters both common and private, these very beloved brethren and sons began strenuously to beseech me in charity that I might not allow the fruits of our labors to be passed over in silence.”
In this manner the most humble monk to redecorate an abbey in stained glass and gold, leaving his name inscribed on almost every portal, introduces one of the few texts by which we can ascertain his influence on the church and state of twelfth century France. Born circa 1081 to minor property-owners, Suger was given over at the age of ten to the care of the abbey of St. Denis, whose later reconstruction would make him the famous “architect” we think of today. Being charismatic, gregarious and ambitious, the young monk was well-received not only by his religious mentors, but also by royalty. In his adolescence Suger befriended Louis VI, soon to become king of a still tentative France, and would serve him and his successors well in the upcoming years.
The church at St. Denis, under Abbot Adam, had been in decline for some time. When Adam died in 1122, the monks voted Suger as their new abbot and to him was passed the responsibility of the church’s decrepitude and the wanton behavior of its brothers. In his handling of these faults, due only to a long neglect, we can read the resolve which backed Suger’s personality. Of course the hot iron wielded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, along with his critical indictments, were a primary motivating factor for the organizational developments in the church at that time. Somehow, though, a bond between the two prevented Abbot Suger’s more celebratory interpretation of church doctrine from being trampled by the asceticism preached and imposed by Bernard. In fact, the peculiar trust between them was so strong that a somewhat guarded political alliance was formed, from which both would benefit.
Suger will most likely always be remembered for St. Denis, although his biographers (including the intimate Willelmus) like to point up the dual nature of his creative work. His was more than a lifelong devotion to the embellishing of his spiritual home. Politically, Suger was very active in the organization of Papal affairs and he bridgedd an important gap between the royal family and the Holy church by dint of his good relations with both. He settled matters with the ostracised Peter Abelard, took nominal control of the French kingdom when Louis VII went off to the Second Crusade and, of course, continued over his whole life to strengthen both the image of national religiosity and the aesthetic character of religious life through the numerous additions, expansions and re-decorations of his beloved St. Denis. More on which follows:
“. . . in Whom all the building – whether spiritual or material – groweth unto one Holy temple in the Lord.”
Even the slightest of introductions to architectural history (if my own knowledge is any indication) will not fail to name Abbot Suger the force behind what is more or less uniformly considered to be the first “coherent” example of the Gothic: the abbey of St. Denis. Although primarily a reconstruction and expansion, the existing space was imbued with elements of a formalistic style that would hold sway for the next few hundred years. Without detailing material not better left to a St. Denis node, we should at least mention the most basic of historical explanations which describe Suger’s work as an "architecture of light". In the larger scheme, then, Suger opens up the dank and hallowed halls by vaulting ceilings, piercing walls with tall, colorful windows, and bedazzling tradition with expensive, crafty accoutrements. Enough said, move on to the Baroque.
The over-arching history of the Western Tradition in architecture does little justice to the ingenuity and ingenuousness of Suger’s pursuits. If we focus in on the Gothic Period in its entirety, which can not fail to comprehend the fact that its own origin was not in Germany but in the heart of a French Abbot, we note that Suger’s architectural developments were not simply "timely". If anything they were untimely with respect to the new wave of anti-pomp. Suger's interesting and original vision may have arisen from his personality, but it is possible that he was also influenced by a branch of theology attributable to Pseudo-Dionysius, whose writing justified material beauty as having a “harmony and radiance” that would effect a transcendence upward to the immaterial light of God. In this Suger would have found all the evidence he needed to soak the columns of his abbey in vari-colored light, to fill its coffers and cover its altars with gold, and decorate its doors and passages with ornate iconography. Indeed his legacy in writing reveals just this, and the quotation above is directly from Suger's De Consecratione.
But then we might look a bit closer, as Erwin Panofsky did in 1946, and realize that the aside “-whether spiritual or material-“ is actually an insertion, and that Suger has in effect slightly doctored a theological text in his project of visual, transcendental and political ascendance. Panofsky assures us that Suger merely misquotes his own memory, but the result is a complete inversion of the contemporary view of material beauty and its relation to God. It becomes unclear whether the renovation of St. Denis is meant to serve the legitimacy of the French state and the Papal church, or whether these institutions serve to channel infrastructural energy in collusion with a historical site and a remarkable man. He done good, and we wanna know why.
At a symposium for the 900th birthday of Abbot Suger a study of gothic, architectural theology is conceived in which the writer recognizes Panofsky’s important glance at Sugerology and its uncovering of the Pseudo-Dionysian thread. Its author, however, is not unconvinced that it might be better to consider Suger’s reception of this view as through its most probable mediating factor, Hugh of St. Victor, whose voice can be read in the tone of Suger’s interpretations. A recovered text on a building in history yields a critique of a critique of a critique; the grad-student scratches himself, thinks about ramen noodles, turns over and falls asleep alone.
And so on and so on with microscopic investigations of not only currents, but also eddies, ripples, and stirrings of discourse in production of a da Vinci-esque tumult or iterable chaos with itself as material and source. I scratch, think of pesto, and fall asleep alone.
Architecture: from Prehistory to Post-Modernism. Marvin Trachtenberg, Isabelle Hyman. Prentice-Hall, 1986.
Gothic. Rolf Toman ed. Konemann, 1998.
Abbot Suger. Erwin Panofsky. Princeton, 1979.
Abbot Suger and St. Denis: A Symposium. Paula Lieber Gerson ed. MOMA, 1986.