Sunday, June 30, 2013

Forgoten Patron-Abbot Suger

If you are interested in art history, specially if you are interested in Medieval art, sooner or later you will run in your conversation, or books people recommend to you, into stories about Templars, how they introduced and built Gothic cathedrals, and so on. One name is never mentioned in such conversations,  or books: Abbot Suger's. It seems he disappeared from popular culture as contributor to Gothic art, or maybe he was never accepted. Pity, as he did as much for the development of Gothic architecture as the Medici's family did for the Renaissance. Of course, he is known to people who are serious about art history, but doesn't he deserve his place in the pantheon of movers and shakers and patrons who fueled new forms?

Chapel of the Virgin, St Denis basilica, via wiki commons by Myrabella
Abbot Suger was a man of many talents: he was a politician, statesman who served as regent of France when king was on crusade, he was a historian, art theorist, theologian and of course manager of a big and influential Abbey of Saint Denis. Not to idealise him: as many people of his times, he was sometimes opposing crusades, but sometimes he was in favor of them. Basilica of St Denis on wikipedia article

He was friend and confidant of the kings, and patron of artists and builders who had new ideas but were not given proper chance to bloom.

Sometimes, however, another situation happens: Abbot Suger is talked about as a single inventor of a Gothic style. This is not completely true: he wrote about aesthetics, wanted the walls to be higher, lighter, windows big and colorful, designed himself, introduced new features, loved things ornate and precious. But he collaborated with people who wanted to do things in a different way.Redesigning of St Denis wasn't his and only his project. He was very engaged, but didn't handle projects and firmly said: "build exactly what I drew." He was giving ideas, he accepted ideas, he was the project manager. Through him was possible to introduce large windows with pointed arches, ribbed vaults, clusters of columns, flying buttress, ambulatory with chapels radiating form it, and lots of light.

As you see on the picture above some features are still Carolingian, like for example columns, they still look like those from Antiquity. But arches are pointed already, vault is more complex, and windows are big.

Gothic style was a natural development of Romanesque style: what happens the newer style tended to make the building more spread in smaller part, branching out, more differentiated in forms, less compact, in comparison to the solid mass of Romanesque churches. The style was adopted fast, specially in royal domain of Ille de France, but still a lot of experimentation was going on. It happened that not all architectural ideas worked perfectly, talking about Europe now in general, not only France. There were instances when parts of cathedrals collapsed, or bad accidents happened. But with time building science was catching up with new aesthetics of creating higher and higher churches with bigger and bigger windows.

Rosette window in St Denis, North side,via wiki commons by Amirwiki
About Zodiac, see my blog entry about Charters and Zodiac
A lot of enthusiasm was involved in such projects, specially in France. France was the cradle of Gothic style and from here the style radiated to other countries. More stones were moved in France during the era of building Gothic cathedrals than in old Egypt in construction of pyramids, and cathedral builders were properly compensated. People who helped were volunteers, no slave work involved.

Volunteers were amazing enthusiasts.They were religious, of course, those people were products of their times like we often are products of our times. Haimon, abbot of Saint Pierre sur Dives wrote in his letter from 1145 about the wave of building enthusiasm among people in France. He wrote about building of Chartres cathedral. According to him even princes and nobility together with those of humble origin were pulling carts full of olive, wood, crops, stones, and anything which was needed for fulfilling the needs of the people working on the construction, or for the building of the church. Often a thousand or more people were pulling a cart full of stones, in great silence, in spirit of forgiveness of each other imperfections and in spirit of universal brotherhood and sisterhood. If you could hear anything at all , those were only prayers, or confessions of wrong doings and words of forgiveness among them. It was like a contemplative movement of peace among people for whom at such times differences among humans were not important, they worked in the spirit of brotherly and sisterly love. So wrote Haimon.

 Suger's ideas of the new style spread fast, but it doesn't mean that they were widely accepted without criticism: some churchmen said that ornate and rich style shouldn't be part of church buildings, church interiors, or church services. Cystersians were proponents of such ideas of humbleness and actually during Medieval times there was ongoing controversy about humbleness versus showing things divine through color, gold, light   and all things which could inspire awe. A little about Cystersian aesthetics in my other entry. I am not saying one approach was better than the other,but  they were competing.

 Abbot Suger not only broke frames of Carolingian building, (the abbey was built in this style) when he commissioned the rebuilding, but also asserted that awe is important part of religious experience.

Cystersian were more for soft quiet focus and contemplation, were against appeal to senses in churches. Colors, sumptuous decorations, music, incense, this was not important, they viewed it as distracting form the experience of closeness to God. Suger said the divine manifests in beauty, light an d color. He wasn't alone: this idea was well and alive because of monastery in Cluny. Founder of the Cystersian order, St. Bernard of Clairveaux simply opposed Cluniac theories. But Suger was on the side of Cluny: to him the stained glass windows were like a vision,  gold reminded of divine wisdom, soaring heights of church ceilings were leading thoughts to heaven. For sure churches were sanctuaries of beauty and space in European, not only French cities, which were dirty, conditions were crowded, as for example width of a room was the width of a bed, etc. But people could just step in a church building  and were transported into another, more beautiful world.