basilica of saint denis


Gothic Rayonnant (Light)


Expansive interior light has been a feature of Gothic cathedrals since the first structure was opened. The metaphysics of light in the Middle Ages led to clerical belief in its divinity and the importance of its display in holy settings. Much of this belief was based on the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, a sixth-century mystic whose book, The Celestial Hierarchy, was popular among monks in France. Pseudo-Dionysius held that all light, even light reflected from metals or streamed through windows, was divine. To promote such faith, the abbot in charge of the Saint-Denis church on the north edge of Paris, the Abbot Suger, encouraged architects remodeling the building to make the interior as bright as possible.

Ever since the remodeled Basilica of Saint-Denis opened in 1144, Gothic architecture has featured expansive windows, such as at Sainte Chapelle, York Minster, Gloucester Cathedral. The increase in size between windows of the Romanesque and Gothic periods is related to the use of the ribbed vault, and in particular, the pointed ribbed vault which channeled the weight to a supporting shaft with less outward thrust than a semicircular vault. Walls did not need to be so weighty.[11][20]

A further development was the flying buttress which arched externally from the springing of the vault across the roof of the aisle to a large buttress pier projecting well beyond the line of the external wall. These piers were often surmounted by a pinnacle or statue, further adding to the downward weight, and counteracting the outward thrust of the vault and buttress arch as well as stress from wind loading.

The internal columns of the arcade with their attached shafts, the ribs of the vault and the flying buttresses, with their associated vertical buttresses jutting at right-angles to the building, created a stone skeleton. Between these parts, the walls and the infill of the vaults could be of lighter construction. Between the narrow buttresses, the walls could be opened up into large windows.[8]

Through the Gothic period, thanks to the versatility of the pointed arch, the structure of Gothic windows developed from simple openings to immensely rich and decorative sculptural designs. The windows were very often filled with stained glass which added a dimension of colour to the light within the building, as well as providing a medium for figurative and narrative art.[20]

Basilique Saint-Denis. France. Photo by Amber Maitrejean

The north rose window of the Basilica of Saint Denis, the royal necropolis of all but three French kings and queens, from the 6th century onwards. The basilica stands on the site of a Gallo-Roman cemetery with the tomb of Saint Denis, thought to have been the first Bishop of Paris, who was martyred in 250 AD. This place of pilgrimage was built in the 5th century. Dagobert I was a benefactor to it in the 7th century, and Pepin the Short was crowned king here in 754. It became one of the most powerful Benedictine abbeys in the Middle Ages. The Basilica is also the first major landmark structure built almost entirely in the Gothic style.

Rock crystal ewer, Egypt, probably Cairo, 1000–1050.

Naturally-occurring rock crystals were used by craftsmen from Iraq and Egypt to make objects of supreme beauty and elegance. Objects like the Egyptian ewer were made to be royal possessions of the Fatimid rulers of Egypt (969–1171). They were prized for their clarity, which was thought to combine the qualities of air and water, and for the great skill required to hollow the crystal to a thickness of only 2mm in places, and then polish its surface, without breaking or blemishing it. 

Most of the surviving Fatimid rock crystal ewers were preserved in important church treasuries, such as the basilicas of Saint Mark in Venice and Saint Denis in Paris.


The Basilica (former Abbey Church) of Saint Denis, Paris


A Guide to Shameless Self-Promotion in the Guise of Piety, by Abbot Suger 

External image

Statue of St. Denis, Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris

Background: Saint Denis was a powerful and wealthy abbey (later of the Benedictine Order) founded in the 7th century by the Merovingian King Dagobert on the site of the grave of Saint Denis. Denis was the patron saint of France and first bishop of Paris, martyred in the 3rd century and famed for being a cephalophore, that is, after his head was cut off (in present-day Monmartre) he picked it up and carried it several miles to the current site of the abbey. (The best part? He is not the only cephalophore in medieval hagiography, just probably the best known). Anyway, Saint Denis, patronized by the monarchy, would eventually become France’s Westminster Abbey (where all the kings and queens were buried). During the beginning of the 12th century, Suger (c. 1081-1151) became Abbot, and was by all accounts (mostly his own, mind), an extremely effective administrator and leader, and soon Saint Denis has a large amount of wealth to draw upon. He and a team of builders, craftsmen, and artists, set to re-building the humble Carolingian-era church into a marvel of the time, inventing what became known as the Gothic style along the way, and smothering the place in gold and precious stones (sadly, most of these were stolen/melted down during the French Revolution and the Wars of Religion). The other thing it was smothered in? Abbot Suger. Based on his own account, there were numerous plaques and dedications giving him credit for the re-building of the church, as well as a number of pictorial tributes. Here’s a few that survived. 

Photo One: It’s like a Medieval Version of Where’s Waldo: I Found Him! 

Photo Two: The detail from a faithful reproduction of the original wooden doors. There are several interesting things about this. First, Suger has inserted himself into one of the best known stories in Christendom, the Last Supper. Secondly, while he is in a submissive position, dressed in monk’s robes with bare feet and a tonsure, he is also the same size as the figures in the scene. This is rather extraordinary, because while patrons and contemporary individuals will sometimes be shown entreating religious figures (Christ, the Saints, Mary, etc.), they are nearly always physically smaller, demonstrating their unworthiness. Suger is apparently just fine putting himself on the same level with Christ. Okay then…

Photo Three: There he is again, this time slightly shrunken, but notice the scene he has inserted himself into. Yup, that’s the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. As is, when Gabriel came down from heaven and gave Mary the big news. And Suger is just sort of awkwardly tacked on, literally sticking out of the circular frame. 

Photo Four: Not content with merely inserting himself into the New Testament (seriously, Abbot Suger is like a Mary Sue in his own Biblical Fanfiction), Suger can now be seen in the corner of a window that shows the tree of Jesse, the allegorical depiction of the genealogy that leads from David, King of the Israelites, to Christ (through Joseph, who isn’t technically related to Jesus at all. That’s always bugged me a bit.) Just in case you don’t recognize him, since he’s wearing green vestments and standing (though still in prayer, his name is written in Latin above his head. 

Photo Five: The West Front of the Abbey Church. The last remaining textual mention of Suger, so far as I am aware, on the dedication which date the new church. The Latin inscription (with an error - ‘Suger’ has two 'g’s - oops) can be translated (not mine):

For the glory of the church which nurtured and raised him, Suger strove for the glory of the church, Sharing with you what is yours, oh martyr Denis. He prays that by your prayers he should become a sharer in Paradise. The year when it was consecrated was the one thousand, one hundred and fortieth year of the Word.: “

GPOY: Medieval Style