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Lite-Metaphor-art - 6/29/08


"Abbot Suger's Abbey Church at St. Denis: The Light Metaphor in Theory and Practice" by Mistress Slaine ni Chiarain.


NOTE: See also the files: monks-msg, glasswork-msg, religion-msg, Icons-art,  icons-msg, candles-msg, lighting-msg, Med-Lighting-lnks.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set

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While the author will likely give permission for this work to be

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                               Thank you,

                                    Mark S. Harris

                                    AKA:  Stefan li Rous

                                         stefan at florilegium.org



Abbot Suger's Abbey Church at St. Denis: The Light Metaphor in Theory and Practice

by Mistress Slaine ni Chiarain


        I remember the multi-colored patches of light falling over me in church when I was a girl. The sun shining full strength through the stained glass windows made the very air around me blue, red, and yellow. The light also transformed the children sitting near me becoming altogether different creatures from those I knew on the playground. My church was not a Gothic Cathedral; the windows were much too squat in proportions, but the light fell upon us in the same brilliant colors the way it did in Abbot Suger's abbey church of St. Denis, the first Gothic building erected about 900 years ago.


        Both art historical and philosophical history books mention the influence Pseudo-Dionysius, the late fifth century Christian neo-platonist, had on Abbot Suger. They emphasize that something was to be learned from the windows and light. Both have very sensuous qualities and light was one of the fundamental metaphors for experiencing God.


        One use for figural arts in the Middle Ages was teaching the illiterate and reminding the learned of religious stories. The Gothic stained glass windows fulfill this. They set up a concordance, comparing each New Testament person with their Old Testament predecessor. The entire cathedral was a model for the universe and a pathway if not a direct link with heaven. However, this path to heaven could not entirely depend on the pictures in the window. One simply could not see the figures, especially in the upper registers.


        There are other things to be learned from the windows. Pseudo-Dionysius speaks of light being accessible to everyone, that "it illuminates what is capable of receiving light and now loses utter fullness of its light." The light in a cathedral falls on everyone equally without accounting for social status or the state of one's soul. Furthermore, if a cathedral is a model of the universe then everything in it "seeks to be held together by light."


        Many theologians of the Middle Ages readily acknowledged the sensuous qualities of beauty. Even the act of selecting materials, be it gold leaf in a manuscripts or jewel-like glass for windows, was a creative act. They believed that God influenced the selection. Abbot Suger was very concerned about the beauty of his church. His writings describe how "The loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation [and] has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial." (Suger, De administratine, ch XXXIII, trans. Panofshy) All this simply by being in his church. Abbot Suger's tastes have at times been called into question. If he wasn't being philosophical about his work then he could have been simply tacky and these writings were only to justify these tastes to more ascetic Benedictines.  


        However, the symbolism of light for God is too prevalent in the Middle Ages. Abbot Suger did, indeed, read Pseudo-Dionysius (thought he thought this was St. Dionysius, the patron martyr of Paris.) According to Pseudo-Dionysius, we need to use symbols (such as light and beauty) because we have senses and those senses move us toward God. Eventually, it was hoped by the learned that we could get beyond our base senses and the glass of Gothic Cathedrals would be useless.


Bibliography -


Eco, Umberto. Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages.  trans. Hugh Bredin.  New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 1986.


Hetler, Heribert. Medieval Stained Glass.  trans. M. Sherfield.  New York:  Crown, 1946.


Pseudo-Dionysius. The Complete Works.  trans.  Colm Luibheid.  New York:  Paulist Press, 1987.


Stokstad, Marilyn. Medieval Art.  New York:  Harper and Row, 1986.


Suger, Abbot. On the Abbey Church of St. Denis and it's Art Treasures.  ed. and trans. Erwin Panofsky.  2nd ed.  New Jersey: Princeton, 1946.



Copyright 1994 and 2000 by Mary M. Haselbauer, <mary_m_haselbauer at yahoo.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in

the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also

appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being

reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
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Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org