|The windows of the|
apse in Suger's Abbey
of Saint Denis
One of my favorite churches is the Abbey of Saint Denis in the northern suburbs of Paris. It’s fame comes from its being the birthplace of Gothic architecture and while that is certainly one of the reasons that draws me there, there is just a wonderful aura of the sacred that fills the place. There has been a church on the site since the days of Saint Genevieve, the fifth-century nun who is said to have saved Paris from Attila the Hun and who has long been the patron saint of the city. The church was the burial place of the French Kings from Clovis through the Merovingians down to the French Revolution. After the Revolution the remains of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were moved from the Cimetière of the Madeleine where they had been buried in unmarked graves and reinterred in the crypt of Saint Denis. Louis XVIII, the king at the Bourbon Restoration in 1814 is also buried there.
The royal connections served the abbey well. In the Middle Ages the Kings of France granted the abbey the right to hold a semi-annual fair and it was one of the largest commercial exchanges in Europe as merchants came from Italy and Spain as well as Scandinavia, Britain, and Ireland to do business. Saint Denis was neither the largest nor the wealthiest abbey in France but it was among them. In 1122, Suger, a monk of remarkable talent was named Abbot. As abbot of the Royal necropolis, Suger was guaranteed a place at Court but Louis VI and Louis VII recognized his particular talents and relied heavily on his participation in the royal administration. It was only after fifteen years of royal service that the abbot could turn to his monastic duties and one of his ambitions was the rebuilding of the Abbey Church.
His first project was a new west front to the church, basing his idea loosely on the Arch of Constantine with its three portals. This replaced the single door of the 9th century church and made access to the church all the easier for the large crowds Suger hoped to draw. Above the central portal Suger constructed what is believed to be the first “rose window” in architecture. Much smaller than the massive walls of glass that would ornament Reims or later catherals, the window nevertheless represents a breakthrough in engineering, The west front and the interior narthex behind it are a very interesting example of the transition from Romanesque to Gothic. Finishing the new front, Suger moved to the other end of the church and built a new choir and apse. It was here that the gothic became most clearly visible. Suger modeled his design on the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius’ The Heavenly Hexarchies and its nine choirs of angels. Suger surrounded the altar with an apse of nine bays, each containing a radial chapel. Each of the traditional three levels—the pavement, the triforum and the clerestory—held massive windows flooding the sanctuary with light. In order to support the roof—now that the walls were virtually of glass—several new features including external flying buttresses were introduced. It was a radical innovation that would influence all European architecture for the next four hundred years.
Today there is no monastic community at Saint Denis but the Abbey Church serves as a cathedral, the seat of a suburban diocese to Paris. The royal tombs are, for the most part, empty as the royal corpses had been disinterred and thrown into a common grave at the time of the Revolution. But when you go to Paris Saint Denis is well worth a trip out north of the city. In some respects it is superior to Notre Dame. It is certainly not as crowded and much easier to enjoy but I personally think the architecture is far more pure and conducive to both prayer and admiration than Notre Dame. Notre Dame has somewhat of a squat and shopworn feeling to it, like someone stepped on it and crushed it just a bit, whereas Saint Denis has that feeling of light pouring down from heaven and the soul soaring upwards that Abbot Suger aimed for in his design.