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Material and Immaterial (and Expensive):
The Defense of Artistic Expenditure at St.-Denis

by Stephen E. Sachs

History of Art and Architecture 14
Prof. Jeffrey F. Hamburger
May 2, 2001

In his De Administratione[1] and De Consecratione,[2] Abbot Suger of St.-Denis did not attempt to outline an aesthetic theory.  Rather, he took care to defend his role in the construction of an exceptionally lavish church, one that many have described as resembling in its visual effect a giant reliquary.  Suger’s defense seemed to portray the church as a relic itself:  a physical point of connection between the earthly and spiritual realms, a material object whose adornment and adoration can bring one closer to immaterial heaven.  To Suger, art accomplished this mission in two ways:  as the source of an ennobling aesthetic experience and as a means of expressing devotion.  The two could be reconciled, but only at great expense — that is to say, expensive and beautiful art could provide the necessary visual stimulus to raise the soul and make it consider what is higher, and at the same time it could represent through its sheer cost an act of self-sacrifice like those of the martyrs whose bones the church protected.  In both cases, expensive art provided the means for the elevation of the soul to higher realms, the unification in a single object of forces both material and immaterial.

Ostensibly, the two texts were written only to record the construction of the building, not to defend it. Yet the sheer number of explanations offered for Suger’s decisions make it clear that he thought himself in need of intellectual cover — even the writing of the texts themselves is explicitly said to arise from “zealous solicitude for the good care of the church of God” and consideration for the wishes of Suger’s monks, rather than any desire for “empty glory” or “human praise and transitory compensation” (41).  Suger’s construction of St.-Denis came at a time when Bernard of Clairvaux was actively campaigning against great expenditure in churchbuilding; in his Apologia to Abbot William, the Cistercian wrote scathingly of churches whose stones “are covered with gold, while [their] children are left naked.”[3]  St.-Denis likely met the descriptions of excess in Bernard’s Apologia better than any church in France, excepting perhaps the third Cluny.  How, then, did Suger justify his opulent abbey church?

One response can be read directly from the inscription which Suger had placed on the main doors of St.-Denis.  The inscription urged the viewer to “marvel not” at the “gold and the expense” of the doors, but rather at their “craftsmanship” (49); the doors were designed to lead viewers to the True Door, which is Christ, and are not to be valued for their own sake.  Yet at a certain level, the inscription is not entirely honest.  Suger does want the viewer to marvel at the “gold and the expense”; indeed, he expends great effort (and a good deal of ink) in the two texts describing in painstaking detail the amount of gold and the types of precious stones used in the church — far more effort than he spends in outlining the techniques used by the craftsmen or explaining why those techniques are of unusual quality and should be honored.  The reference to the gold and the expense in the inscription is so prominent that one almost wonders if the request not to marvel at them might be in jest; despite its apparent modesty, the inscription certainly carries echoes of Piero de’ Medici’s famous inscription, “the marble alone cost 4000 florins.”

Could craftsmanship indeed have been Suger’s focus?  Surprisingly for one who professes such an interest in the subject, Suger leaves out of his account any record what was perhaps the most impressive craftsmanship of all — the church’s significant architectural innovations.  The use of the pointed arch to allow for irregular and trapezoidal bays in the chevet, the use of flying buttresses to hold up the roof in place of walls now made of glass, the delicate ribs that drew attention away from the vaults and made the entire structure seem to be supported by a spiderweb — these techniques that have attracted the attention of modern historians of architecture all go unmentioned in Suger’s account.  There is some mention of the arithmetical techniques used “cunningly” to reconcile the design with the misalignment of the crypt (101); Suger also makes note of “the variety of so many arches and columns, including even the consummation of the roof” (49-51), as well as the mosaic laid “contrary to modern custom” (47) on the north portal of the west entrance.  But it is clear that his interests lie elsewhere.  One who had never seen the church and had read only the texts would assume that its only important architectural features were its size and harmonic proportions, not that the fact that it is the birthplace of the Gothic style.

Simply put, the author of these texts was not terribly interested in the craftsmanship, or at least not in what the craftsmen were making.  The stone sculpture of St.-Denis, especially on its marvelous capitals and on the splendid tympana, receives almost no mention in the texts.  Furthermore, where Suger does mention sculpture or other figurative imagery — on golden panels, in stained-glass windows — he gives short shrift to the stories it tells, pausing only briefly to mention Paul grinding grain, the Moses window or the Tree of Jesse.  Suger repeats the idea that “the workmanship surpassed the material” in the context of the main altar’s relief panels, which were “equally admirable for [their] form as for [their] material” (63); yet this statement carries an implied exaltation of the material and does not say what it was about the workmanship that made it of surpassing quality.  Where Suger does justify his claims on behalf of workmanship, the justifications are often based on the expense or the exotic nature of the work: the “verroterie cloisonnée” by St. Eloy is notable because it was purchased for 60 marks of silver and because it is held to be “the most precious in the judgment of all goldsmiths” (79) — not for any specifically stated aesthetic merit.

On one level, this may not pose a problem:  Suger is writing an apology, after all, and not an aesthetic treatise.  But the standard defense for religious art since the days of Gregory the Great had been that it would allow those who were illiterate or who would otherwise have failed to appreciate adequately the teachings of the Gospels to attain greater understanding of the heavenly realm through an earthly image.  Suger introduces this rationale when he discusses the image of Paul milling grain as an analogy for removing the bran that hides from us the true flour of the Law; “From so many grains is made the true bread without bran, / Our and the angels’ perpetual food” (75).  These images, Suger tells us, serve the role of “urging us onward from the material to the immaterial,” transforming mere pieces of glass (as well as the quotidian concept of milling grain) into a representation of the most holy and ineffable.  Metaphor here serves as the justification for material excess. Twelve columns represent twelve Apostles; the columns of the side-aisles are minor Prophets; the Ark of the Covenant is a prefiguration of Christ’s sacrifice (105, 75).  The Moses window, for instance, is full of allegory: the Lion, the Lamb and the brazen serpent are identified with Christ; Pharaoh’s daughter with the Church guiding man; the fire of the burning bush with holy fervor, the drowning of the soldiers with baptism (though in reverse); Moses’ receiving the law with Christ’s invigorating it.  It would seem, then, that metaphor is the tool by which one’s mind will be led “to the True Light” (49), as the entryway inscription describes.  Yet the explanation is rendered less convincing when the discussion is immediately followed by Suger’s remark that because the windows “are very valuable on account of their wonderful execution and the profuse expenditure of painted glass and sapphire glass, we appointed an official master craftsman for their protection and repair” (77).

As one who provides descriptions only for very few of the many stories told in his church through sculpture and stained glass, Suger does not have the option of pointing to metaphor as his excuse for opulence.  Instead, a separate route towards Heaven must be found, one that for Suger leads directly through the aesthetic appreciation of rare materials.  This is by no means an ignorant appreciation.  Indeed, Suger writes that the “diversity of materials . . . is not easily understood by the mute perception of sight without a description”; rather, the work “is intelligible only to the literate,” for which reason Suger adds a written description to help the allegorical images to be better understood (63).  For instance, those who know “the properties of precious stones” are the ones who will best appreciate the altar, since they will recognize that “every precious stone was thy covering” and see to their astonishment eleven of the twelve stones before them (63).  Yet it is an appreciation that is not necessarily tied to metaphor and that can be solely concerned with beauty.  In describing the upstairs chapel of St. Romanus — “How secluded this place is, how hallowed” — Suger states that those who serve God in performing the Eucharist there do so “as though they were already dwelling, in a degree, in Heaven while they sacrifice” (45).

To Suger, the beauty of the surroundings transports the worshiper to an intermediate realm between heaven and earth:  the “dull mind rises to truth through that which is material” — not by reading an image as a text, but by appreciating it for its own sake — and, “in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion”  (49).  Similarly, the “loveliness of many-colored gems” calls Suger away from external cares and ennobles his mind to reflect on the divine virtues, “transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial.”  As a result, he finds himself “in some strange region of the universe” neither entirely in “the slime of the earth” nor in “the purity of Heaven” — an analogue, perhaps, to the status of Christ as bridging the gap between Heaven and earth — and recognizes that, “by the Grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner” (65).  Unlike Bernard, who saw the desire for beauty as an appetite and the gleam of gold and gems as a distraction to the soul, Suger sees their otherworldly beauty as a pathway to proper faith.

Suger’s belief in the ability of beauty to draw the viewer to a higher realm is illustrated further in his description of the church’s consecration, an aesthetic experience that he transmutes into a religious one.  The ceremony brought together a vast panoply of dignitaries, with the King and Queen, archbishops, bishops, “diverse counts and nobles from many regions” as well as “ordinary troops of knights and soldiers” too numerous to count (113).  All had come “to so noble a ceremony and so great a spectacle in state,” so that “their outward apparel and attire” made clear the “inward intention of their mind and body” (113) and was rich beyond belief.  Their appearance was followed by the grand ceremonial of “a chorus of great pontiffs, decorous in white vestments, splendidly arrayed in pontifical miters and precious orphreys embellished by circular ornaments” (113);  Never had anyone seen such a procession, Suger records excitedly, and it was “a marvel to behold” (117).  But the consecration was more than a great spectacle:  through the aesthetic aspects of the ceremony, the chorus of “glorious and admirable men” seemed, a “chorus celestial rather than terrestrial, a ceremony divine rather than human” (115).  The 20 simultaneous Masses were chanted “so festively, so solemnly, so different and yet so concordantly, so close [to one another] and so joyfully that their song, delightful by its consonance and unified harmony, was deemed a symphony angelic rather than human” (119-21).  And so moved were the participants by these heavenly sounds and images that they exclaimed with heart and mouth — internally and externally —asking God “by this sacramental unction with the most holy chrism and by the susception of the most holy Eucharist” to uniformly conjoin “the material with the immaterial, the corporeal with the spiritual, the human with the Divine,” invisibly restoring and miraculously transforming “the present [state] into the Heavenly Kingdom,” making men and angels, “Heaven and earth, into one State” (121).  No more powerful expression of Suger’s religious aesthetic (or aesthetic religion) could be desired.

With this in mind, we can begin to better understand Suger’s desire to plaster every object he encounters in layers of gold and gems.  But there is something more going on in Suger’s justification:  the beauty of the church’s decoration is noted, but so are the more mundane aspects of quantity and cost. The main doors were made at “great cost” (47); the golden altar frontal required “forty-two marks of gold” and a “multifarious wealth of precious gems,” while its rear side required “fifteen marks of gold” and forty ounces more for the superstructure (55); the great cross was decorated with “a great and expensive supply of gems and large pearls,” as well as “about eighty marks of refined gold” (59); and Suger himself admired the “marvelous workmanship and lavish sumptuousness” of the rear panel of the main altar, for “the barbarian artists were even more lavish than ours.” Similar examples abound.  Yet no religious emotion is evoked by the “accumulation of gold, silver, most precious gems and very good textiles” (41); why, then, does Suger plague the reader with figures of expenditure and tales of excess?

The answer, in short, seems to be that God and the saints desire it.  The other inscription on the main doors describes Suger’s labor for “the splendor of the Church / Giving thee a share of what is thine, O Martyr Denis” (47).  Denis is clearly perceived as deserving what he receives and more; another inscription on the panel in front of the altar portrays Denis as having “built a new dwelling for [himself] through us” (55).  Building programs had responded to divine requests for centuries before Suger:  he recounts the story of the gift of Dagobert, who had built St.-Denis after being asked by the Holy Martyrs for a church of “regal magnificence,” with a “marvelous variety of marble columns,” “treasures of purest gold and silver,” “tapestries woven of gold,” etc. (87).  The very Hand of God had provided Suger with gems under miraculous circumstances, and St. Denis had no doubt “prevailed upon God” to obtain them (53, 59).[4]

But the reason for the divine request is more fundamental and more central to Suger’s views:  the Lord and His saints deserve to be clothed in the finest an admittedly corrupt earth has to offer.  The “generosity of so great Fathers” demanded for Suger that “we, most miserable men,” should cover their bones with gold “radiant as the sun,” attending upon God “with the most precious materials we possibly can” (107).  Indeed, Suger would consider a saint’s tomb “disfigured” by the presence of stones not covered in gilt copper (107); an inscription on a vase stated baldly that “we must offer libations to God with gems and gold” (79).  The more “loftily and fitly” one strives to build in a material sense, the more one becomes a spiritual and immaterial habitation of God.

What use could God have for these shiny baubles of men?  Suger agreed that one should prefer “that which is spiritual to that which is corporeal, that which is eternal to that which is perishable”; men must transcend the “vexations and most grievous anxieties” of “corporal sensuality and of the exterior senses,” focusing instead on their “eternal reward” (83).  But because human nature is “debased and gravely impaired” (83), we should “offer to Him with humble devotion, as the most acceptable burnt offering of a purified mind, our own righteousness” (85); and God will not disdain, “moved by the entreaties of the sinners, to be placated and propitiated by the sweet-smelling burnt offerings of the penitent” (105).  Suger described the altar — indeed, the entire church — an “ornament” presented by the devotion of men to “such great Protectors” (109).  By incurring the great cost of building the church, he thought himself showing his devotion to God and His saints, mixing “inner purity” with “outward splendor” to serve the Savior in a “universal way” (67) — internal and external, material and immaterial.

We can now begin to explain why the expensive items figure so prominently in the texts, as well as why the inscription on the main doors asked us to marvel at the craftsmanship — laborem, the labor; the expense of the church itself represents an act of devotion and charity.  God had mercifully “deemed [Suger] worthy,” reserving the task for his “lifetime and labors” (49); Suger devoted his “whole self, both with mind and body” (49), to the task, and he strove to devote “labor and expense, as fittingly and nobly as it could reasonably be done, to the enlargement of the church our mother” in gratitude for God’s favor (99). We can also understand why Suger insisted that “every costlier or costliest thing should serve, first and foremost, for the administration of the Holy Eucharist” (65) — the sacrifices of men should be greatest when accompanying the great sacrifice made by Christ, and Suger notes the “diligent and patient labor” with which the artisans, on the side of the great cross facing the “sacrificing priest,” depicted Christ “suffering, as it were, even now in remembrance of His Passion” (57-9).  The Host was the relic par excellence, the very body of Christ; it was the immaterial brought down to earth and incarnated through the same mystery.  In devotion to it, one participated in some small way in the sacrifice, and the inscription on the altar panel asked that Suger for his service be “sated at the heavenly table” (55) instead of the present one.

The possibility of sacrifice was not limited to Christ; the martyrs themselves were “holy men who gave over their bodies as a testimony to God” (117), and the church’s relics were all thus tokens of sacrifice.  The legend that Christ had personally consecrated the church led Suger to “respect the very stones, sacred as they are, as though they were relics” (101).  When the church was rebuilt, the mortar of the keystone was prepared by bishops with holy water (103), the first stones were laid along with a solemn hymn, and the King himself “with his own hands” laid a stone, as did abbots and monks, some depositing gems “out of love and reverence for Jesus Christ,” chanting “All thy walls are precious stones” (103).  The devotion of the faithful to the relics of the saints, their desire to partake of the sacrifice, was fulfilled through the vast expense of beautifying the church as a structure to hold the relics and as a relic itself.

The church of St.-Denis, like the bodies of the martyrs that it housed, was a physical object of the corrupt, material world.  Yet it was also one that could carry spiritual meaning, either by giving rise to a numinous feeling in the observer or by serving as a vehicle for self-sacrifice for the greater glory of God.  Though he left out from his writings many of its innovations, and though he refused to read the images as a text, Suger nevertheless saw the lavish physical adornment of the building as something more than greed, eye candy, or a play to the viewer’s carnal desires.  Rather, expensive art was a vital feature of the abbey church; like Christ, it could serve as an intermediary between God and man and could transport the monks and pilgrims to a intermediate — and immaterial — realm.

[1] Suger, Liber de Rebus in Administratione Sua Gestis, ca. 1144-9, rpt. in Abbot Suger, Erwin Panofsky, ed., 2nd ed. (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1979):  40-81.

[2] Suger, Libellus Alter de Consecratione Eccleisae Sancti Dionysii, ca. 1144-7, rpt. in Abbot Suger:  82-121.  As the pagination is continuous, quotes from either work will be referenced solely by page number.

[3] Bernard of Clairvaux, An Apologia to Abbot William, rpt. in The Works of Bernard of Clairvaux, vol. 1 (Spencer, Mass.:  Cistercian Publications, 1970):  65.

[4] Suger’s description of the creation of the altar panel gives the monks somewhat more humility than perhaps they deserve: “While we, over come by timidity, had planned to set up in front of this [altar] a panel golden but modest, the Holy Martyrs themselves handed to us such a wealth of gold and most precious gems . . . as though they were telling us with their own lips: ‘Whether thou wantst it or not, we want it of the best”; so that we would neither have dared, nor have been able to, make it other than admirable and very precious in workmanship as well as material” (107).