From The Book of Suger Abbot of Saint Denis c1144

The onetime village of Saint-Denis (now a part of Paris) holds a particularly important place within architectural history because it is the birthplace of Gothic architecture. The rebuilding of this Carolingian pilgrimage church (originally founded in the late eighth century) is owed to the efforts of Abbot Suger (1081-1151). The church was a shrine to the spiritual apostle of France, and for this reason Charlemagne and his son Pepin, establishing a precedent, were crowned there as kings. It was because of this dual religious and political significance that Suger, a childhood friend of Louis VI, sought to enhance both his friend's political standing (royal power in France at this time was second to that of nobles) and the authority of the Church by enlarging the existing abbey church. The important work of building the new narthex on the western front, containing the first rose window, and the enlarged Gothic choir on the eastern end were largely carried out between 1137 and the church's rededication in 1144. The choir in particular is a masterpiece of structural innovation. With the removal of the traditional walls separating choir chapels in Romanesque churches, Suger and his (unknown) master mason, devising seven radial chapels, created a double ambulatory of pointed arches and vaults supported on slender columns (with quasi-classical capitals), and reinforced the delicacy of the stonework with piers and flying buttresses outside. The curved outside walls of the chapels thus became walls of glass, introducing both abundant light and extreme visual lightness. The new structural solution even achieved the status of a ''miracle'' when, during construction, a violent storm destroyed many surrounding buildings but left the rib work for the new vaults intact. These passages from Suger's libellus alter de consecratione ecciesiae sancti dionysii relate to the conception and planning of the all-important choir. The importance of geometry and proportions are made evident, as is some of the basic symbolism of the church.

Having thus deliberated with our very devoted brothers - ''Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way'' - we decided upon deliberation under God's inspiration . . . to respect the stones themselves, sanctified in this way as much as relics. We endeavored to apply ourselves to ennoble this much-needed new [choir] through the beauty of the length and width. Upon reflection, we thus decided to replace the vault, unequal to the higher one that covered the apse containing the bodies of our Patron Saints,

Abbot Suger (c.1081-1151), from The Book of Suger, Abbot of Saint-Denis (c.1144), trans. Christina Contandriopoulos from the French translation of the Latin text, ed. and trans. Francoise Gasparri, in Les Classiques de I'histoire de France, Vol. 1. Paris: Belles Lettres, 1996, pp. 25-39. Reproduced by permission.

down to the upper level of the crypt, to which it was connected. In this way, a single crypt would offer its top as a pavement to those arriving by the stairs on both sides, and it would allow the visitors on the upper level a view of the relics of saints adorned with gold and precious stone. With perspicacity and with the help of geometrical and arithmetical tools, we also endeavored to make the center of the old church coincide with the center of the new construction by superimposing the upper columns and median arches over those that were built in the crypt; [we managed] also to adapt the proportions of the ancient side aisles to the new ones - except for that remarkable and elegant addition yielding a crown of chapels, because of which the entire [church] would brilliantly shine with the remarkable and uninterrupted light of the dazzling windows illuminating the interior beauty. [... ]

Thus at great expense, and thanks to so many workers, we applied ourselves for three years, summer and winter, to the completion of this work... In the center [of the building] twelve columns represented the group of twelve Apostles. The second group of the columns represented the same number of prophets in the ambulatory, which suddenly projected the building to another size, according to the Apostle who built spiritually: ''Now therefore,'' he said, ''ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God. And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto a holy temple in the Lord.'' In Him, we too applied ourselves to build an edifice materially as tall and with as much fitness as we could, by us spiritually [to become] the house of God in the Holy Spirit. [... ]

Here is an event we have thought should not be passed over in silence. When work on the new addition with its capitals and upper arches was reaching the summit of its height, but when the independently constructed main arches were not yet connected to the mass of the vaults, there suddenly arose a terrible, almost intolerable storm. It had accumulations of clouds, pouring rain, and very violent winds, which were severe to the point of shaking not only robust houses but also stone towers and timber donjons. During this storm, on the anniversary of the glorious king Dagobert, the venerable bishop Charles Geoffroy was solemnly celebrating a Mass of thanksgiving at the main altar before the community for the soul of this king. The violence of the opposing winds pushed so hard against these arches, which were not supported by any scaffolding or braced by any prop, that they miserably trembled and oscillated from side to side in such a way that they threatened to fall abruptly into ruin beyond repair. Frightened by the shaking of these arches and roofing, the Bishop frequently extended his hand in that direction in a sign of benediction, and presented with insistence the arm of the old [St.] Simeon, while making the sign of the cross. Thus it became very clear that the collapse [of the construction] was avoided not because of its own strength but only because of God's goodness and the glory of the Saints. Whereas in many places the tempest had caused great damage to many well-built buildings, the storm, held in check by divine force, inflicted no damage at all on these isolated, newly constructed arches tottering in the air.

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