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

Ambulatory, Basilica of Saint Denis, Paris, 1140-44. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

DR. BETH HARRIS: Here we are at the Basilica of Saint Denis. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: The birthplace of the Gothic. DR. BETH HARRIS: Thanks to Suger, who was the abbot in the first half of the 12th century. This church is incredibly important because it's the burial place of the royal family. since Suger himself was also a advisor to the royal family. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're standing in the choir. And light is pouring in the windows. DR. BETH HARRIS: 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. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Actually, it's taking us around behind the altar. DR. BETH HARRIS: Now, Suger completed the ambulatory and also the facade of the church. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And none of this was new construction. There had been a ninth-century church here. And Suger felt that it was inadequate as the burial place of the kings. At this historical moment, the kings of France only really controlled the Isle de France, that is, the area immediately around Paris. But this was a time when the king's power was expanding. And Suger 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. DR. BETH HARRIS: In the past during the Romanesque period, these chapels would be literally separate rooms with walls around them. And Suger'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. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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 second of all, why he did this. DR. BETH HARRIS: Which one should we do first? DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, let's talk about how he did it. If you look above us, there's this complex web of interlocking pointed vaulting. DR. BETH HARRIS: 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 it down. And because of that, the architect didn't need to build thick walls. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: A traditional Roman arch generally has to be placed on quite heavy walls, because it really does push outward. It splays. 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 buttressed from the side. DR. BETH HARRIS: 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. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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 you felt the sense of gravity. You felt a sort of rootedness with the Romanesque. And it is so different here. You have to remember 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 Suger believed that light could do this. DR. BETH HARRIS: Suger thought he was reading the writing of Saint Denis, of the patron saint of this church. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Instead, he was reading a philosopher from the sixth century. But the important part is he took this notion of the divinity of light from that writing and made that practical and applicable within an architectural setting. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right. That writing that he thought was by Saint Denis talked about how light was connected to the divine. So what Suger wanted was to open up those walls and allow in the light that would allow a type of thinking on the part of the visitors where they would move from the contemplation of the light to God. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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. Suger is moving in the other direction and saying, no, in fact. We can transport people. DR. BETH HARRIS: That the visual is not a distraction but a way of transporting us to the divine. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: I have to say that I think Suger was incredibly successful. This is startlingly beautiful. And I feel transported.