Suger of St. Denis
Suger of St. Denis
Royal Favorite. Suger, abbot of one of the most influential monasteries in France and close adviser to two kings, came from a humble background. When he was about nine or ten years old, his parents dedicated him to the monastery of St. Denis. There he had for a friend and fellow-student, the future King Louis VI (Louis the Fat). In 1106 he became secretary to Adam, the abbot of St. Denis. Adam sent him to a monastery near Fontrevault, Normandy for further education. Later he attended the Council of Poitiers as the abbot’s representative. Suger was subsequently given charge of a defunct monastery in Normandy, where he succeeded in restoring the estates of the monastery. In 1109 he was sent to Touryen Beauce near Chartres, and he also managed to restore this domain to prosperity. He remained the close friend and adviser of Louis VI, acting as a mediator for the king in his wars with his vassals. Louis VI entrusted Suger with several diplomatic missions, in the course of which he met Popes Paschal II, Gelasius II, and Calixtus II. On return from Rome he learned that he had been chosen to succeed Abbot Adam as head of St. Denis.
Advent of Gothic Architecture. A highly capable administrator, Suger was very successful in rebuilding the fortunes of St. Denis. He recorded his activities in Liber de rebus in administration sua gestis (Book on the Things Accomplished during his Administration). In 1127 he set about reforming the abbey and the lives of its monks, who had acquired a reputation for worldliness under Suger’s predecessor. The most visible and lasting result of his energetic reforms was the restoration, under his supervision, of the abbey church. The existing church had been erected about four hundred years earlier and had fallen into disrepair. The restored church would become a model for all of Europe and for the new architectural style, Gothic. It featured innovations like ribbed vaults, the predominance of pointed arches, and the use of rose windows and other instances of stained glass; some of these innovations are attributed to Suger himself. The restoration involved a lengthy three-stage process. In 1144 the final stage was completed, and the choir was dedicated to St. Denis. In contrast to the darker, less-open churches of Romanesque style, the choir magnificently exhibits the potentials of glass and light. In his Liber de rebus in adminsratione sua gestis Suger records the inscription on the doors of the church, typical of the symbolism of the new Gothic style, with an aesthetic based on Dionysian Neoplatonic theory: “The noble work is bright, but being nobly bright it should brighten the mind, allowing it to travel from [earthly] light to the true light, where Christ is the true door.”
Regency and Death. When Louis VI was succeeded by his son Louis VII, Suger continued in his role of royal adviser. He was so trusted that when the new king left for the Second Crusade (1144-1187) in 1147 he was appointed regent in the king’s absence. Despite internal strife within France, Suger managed to keep the country together, and even improved on some of the existing laws. Louis VII was duly impressed with Suger’s administrative accomplishments, and on his return to France he honored him as the “father of his country.” In addition to his career as abbot and royal advisor, Suger was a minor historian, composing biographies of Louis VI and Louis VII . He died at the age of seventy on 13 January 1151.
Erwin Panofsky, Abbot Suger (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).