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

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.
Video transcript
[Music Playing] Here we are at the basilica of St. Denis. The birthplace of the Gothic. Thanks to Suger, who was the abbot in the first half of the 12th century. this church is incredibly important because it is the burial place of the royal families. And Suger himself was also an 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, it is taking us around behind the altar. Now Suger 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 Suger felt 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, that's 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 this would generally work is that 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 literally be separate rooms with walls around them. And Suger's idea was instead to open up the space and allow light to flood in and that's exactly how this looks. 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 has 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. Yes. Which one should we do first? Well, let's talk about how he did it. If you look above us, there is 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. 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. 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 is a real sense of elegance and openness to this space. It's 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 we felt the sense of gravity. You felt a sort of rootedness with the Romanesque. And it's so different here. You have to remember the church itself, any consecrated church is an expression of Holy Jerusalem. It is Heaven on Earth. 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. Suger thought he was reading the writing of St. Denis, the patron saint of this church. 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. Right. That writing that he thought was by St. 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 light to God. This was a radical and new notion and actually flew in the face of other theological theories of the time. If you think about the ideas that are being established by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who is 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. That the visual is not a distraction but a way of transporting us to the divine. I have to say that I think Suger was incredibly successful. This is startlingly beautiful, and I feel transported.