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Current time:0:00Total duration:5:18

Birth of the Gothic: Abbot Suger and the ambulatory at St. Denis

Video transcript

here we are at the basilica of san denis the birthplace of the gothic thanks to su j who is the abbot in the first half of the 12th century this church is incredibly important because it's the burial place of the royal families in CJ himself is also a advisor to the royal family we're standing in the choir and light is pouring in the windows so the choir is the space behind the altar of the church and the ambulatory is the aisle that would take one behind the altar actually is taking us around behind the altar now CJ completed the ambulatory and also the facade of the church and none of this was new construction there had been a ninth century church here and CJ felt that it was inadequate as the burial place of the kings at this historical moment the kings of france only really controlled the ile-de-france as the area immediately around paris but this was a time when the king's power was expanding and suzay really wanted to create an architectural style that would express the growing power of the monarch now in the history of Western Church architecture the way that this would generally work is you would have an ambulatory that would move around the back of the altar and that would allow pilgrims to stop at each of these small radiating chapels that is these small rooms that would contain relics in the past during the Romanesque period these chapels would be literally separate rooms with walls around them and sue J's idea was instead to open up the space and to allow light to flood in and that's exactly how this looks and it must have looked so different than anything anyone had seen before instead of this looking like a set of walls that are pierced by windows and in the Romanesque relatively small windows instead he's figured out how to engineer this structure in stone so that the walls can basically disappear and be replaced by glass colored glass that lets this brilliant luminous color into the space so let's talk about two things how he did this and of all why he did this return to redo her well let's talk about how he did it if you look above us there's this complex web of interlocking pointed vaulting pointed arches are really key here because for one thing you can cover spaces of different shapes and sizes perhaps most importantly a pointed arch doesn't push so much out as it does down and because of that the architect didn't need to build thick walls a traditional Roman arch generally has to be placed on quite heavy walls because it really does push outward its plays what the pointed arch does is it tends to take the weight of the vaulting and push it more straight down so that the weight doesn't have to be but wrists from the side looking up at those ribs we have a sense of a pull toward the vertical and all of these ribs in this vaulting rests on these thin columns so there's a real sense of elegance and openness to this space and it's so radically different from the Romanesque that came before which felt so solid and where your eye was always drawn around that rounded arch back down and he felt the sense of gravity he felt a sort of rootedness with it Romanesque is so different here you have to remember of the church itself any consecrated Church is an expression of the holy Jerusalem it is heaven on earth and so the idea is how can one transport us to a more heavenly place to a more spiritual place Abbot sujay believed that light could do this su J thought he was reading the writing of San Denis of the patron saint of this church instead he was reading a philosopher from the 6th century but the important part is as he took this notion of the divinity of light from that writing and made that practical and applicable within an architectural setting right that writing that he thought was by San Deniz talked about how light was connected to the divine so what su J wanted was to open up those walls and allow in the light that would allow a type of thing King on the part of the visitors where they would move from the contemplation of the light to God this was a radical and new notion and actually flew in the face of other theological theories of the time and if you think about the ideas that are being established by saint bernard of clairvaux who's saying we have to get rid of all the decorative we have to get rid of everything that will distract us suzay is moving in the other direction and saying no in fact we can transport people that the visual is not a distraction but a way of transporting us to the divine I have to say that I think Suja was incredibly successful this is startlingly beautiful and I feel transported