[These two resources, excerpts from Suger’s On What Was Done in his Administration and Bernard’s Apology, are taken from Fordham University’s Medieval Sourcebook. Introductions by Paul Halsall. Translations from Latin by David Burr.]
Abbot Suger: ON WHAT WAS DONE IN HIS ADMINISTRATION
Suger was born in 1081 of a very minor knightly family He was dedicated to the abbey of St. Denis at the age of nine or ten and came to see himself as its adopted child. Appointed abbot in 1122, he held that position until his death in 1155.
His office was a highly prestigious one. The abbey had been founded in the seventh century by the Frankish king Dagobert in honor of Denis, the patron saint of France, and his legendary companions Rusticus and Eleutherius. By Suger’s time it had long been the royal abbey of France. Kings were educated and buried there.
In Suger’s time, the French monarchy was slowly but surely on the way up. The king was gradually gaining power over his unruly nobles and would eventually use that power to win a major role in European affairs. Most of that development was still in the future, but by 1137 the pendulum was already beginning to swing. As royal abbey, St. Denis was a symbol of royal power, and what was done to it redounded to the glory of both the monarch and Franca Thus its renovation was a political as well as an architectural and religious event.
Suger was in a position to recognize this fact. His status as abbot made him one of the most powerful men in France. He was actively engaged in French political life and virtually ran the kingdom while King Louis VI was away on crusade. A fervent patriot, Suger never hesitated to identify the best interests of king, France, Church, abbey and God.
The old abbey church of St. Denis had been completed in 775. By 1137 it was dilapidated and probably would have been viewed with extreme suspicion by a modern building inspector. Thus Suger decided improvement was in order and in that year he began work on the west end of the church, building a new facade with two towers and three doors. In 1140 he moved from the west end clear to the other end of the church and started to build a new choir. It was completed in 1144. The result was a major event in the history of architecture. Gothic was born.
The influence of the abbey church on French architecture was undoubtedly furthered by its role as political symbol. When the new choir was consecrated in 1144, five French archbishops and thirteen bishops took part in the ceremony, an impressive tribute to Suger and his king. It was the French archbishops and bishops who would assume initiative in the future development of Gothic architecture.
For Suger, of course, the primary significance of his church was neither political nor architectural but religious, insofar as he could separate the three. His main goal was to honor God and St. Denis. The latter deserves some attention. According to legend, he entered Gaul as a missionary in A.D. 250 and was executed in Paris eight years later. It was not all that easy. The Romans unsuccessfully tried roasting him on a gridiron, throwing him to the beasts, and baking him in an oven before they hit upon the idea of beheading him. That worked, but not immediately, for the decapitated saint picked up his head and walked two miles to the future site of the abbey before giving up the ghost.
However wonderful his legend may seem, medieval historians made it even better by confusing him with two other figures of the same name. “Denis” is the French version of the Latin “Dionysius,” the name Suger actually used. We encounter another Dionysius in Acts 17:34, converted during Paul’s brief missionary visit to Athens. Five centuries later, in the late fifth or early sixth century, an anonymous Syrian theologian fascinated by the religious symbolism of light wrote a series of treatises which were attributed to the Dionysius of Acts 17:34. Eventually all the elements were combined and, according the legend, Dionysius was converted by Paul, became bishop of Athens, wrote the treatises, and eventually missionized France where he was martyred.
The identification is more important than one might at first imagine. The figure of St. Denis united the various aspects of the church in a peculiar way. As patron saint of France, his interests were tied to those of France in a twofold sense. His glorification was hers in a very direct way because he symbolized France. It was also hers more indirectly because, lake other saints, Denis would not neglect to reward a favor, and thus one could expect him to intervene for king and country more enthusiastically if his church was generously endowed.
Denis also united the religious and architectural aspects of the new church. It is hardly a coincidence that both the pseudo-Dionysian treatises and nascent Gothic architecture are interested in light. As we shall see, Suger himself was fascinated by the religious implications of light and built accordingly
The Book of Suger Abbot of St. Denis on What Was Done During his Administration is one of two works by Suger concerning the abbey church of St. Denis. It was probably begun shortly after the consecration of the choir in 1144 and finished no earlier than the end of 1148. All of the work that has survived is reproduced here.
In the twenty-third year of our administration, on a certain day when we sat in general chapter conferring with our brethren about common and private matters, these same dear brothers and sons began to beg me vigorously and in love that I should not remain silent about the fruit of our past labors but rather with pen and ink should preserve for future memory the additions which the munificence of almighty God bestowed upon this church during the time of our leadership in the acquisition of new things, the recovery of lost ones, the multiplication of refurbished possessions, the construction of buildings, and the accumulation of gold, silver, precious gems and quality textiles. From this one thing they promised us two in return: Through this memorial we should earn the prayers of succeeding brothers for the salvation of our soul; and through this example we should arouse in them a zealous commitment to the proper maintenance of God’s church. We therefore, devoutly assenting to their devout and reasonable requests, without hungering for empty glory or demanding the reward of human praise or impermanent earthly reward, lest after our passing the revenues of the church should be diminished by someone’s fraud, lest the abundant additions conferred upon the church by God’s munificence during the time of our administration should be quietly lost by unworthy successors, we thought it proper and useful to inform present and future readers of the increase in revenues, construction of buildings and multiplication of treasures in the church of the most blessed martyrs Denis, Rusticus and Eleutherius, a church that tenderly fostered us from mothers breast to old age
XXIV. Concerning the Decoration of the Church
Having thus assigned these increases in the revenue, we turned back to the memorable construction of buildings, so that through this activity thanks might be given to almighty God by us and our successors, and enthusiasm for its continuation and, if necessary, for its completion should be fired by good example. For neither poverty nor opposition by any power is to be feared if one securely makes use of one’s own resources through love for the holy martyrs.
Therefore, by divine inspiration, the first work we did on the church was as follows. Because the walls were old and threatened to weaken in some places, having summoned the best painters we could find from various places, we devoutly had the walls repaired and worthily painted with gold and costly colors. I carried this task out all the more gladly because, even when I was a student, I had wanted to do so if ever I had the opportunity.
XXV. Concerning the First Addition to the Church
Even while this was being carried out at great expense, however, because of the inadequacy we often felt on special days such as the feast of the blessed Denis, the fair, and many other times, when the narrowness of the place forced women to run to the altar on the heads of men as on a pavement with great anguish and confusion; for this reason, moved by divine inspiration and encouraged by the council of wise men as well as the prayers of many monks, in order to avoid the displeasure of the holy martyrs I undertook to enlarge and amplify the noble monastic church consecrated by the divine hand, devoutly praying both in our chapter and in church that he who is beginning and end, alpha and omega, should join a good end with a good beginning by way of a sound middle, and that he might not exclude from the building of the temple a bloody man who wholeheartedly desired this more than the treasures of Constantinople. Thus we began with the former main entrance, dismantling a certain addition said to have been built by Charlemagne on a very worthy occasion, because his father, the Emperor Pepin, had ordered that he be buried outside that entrance, face down, for the sins of his father Charles Martel. As is obvious, we exerted ourselves, vehemently enlarging the body of the church, tripling the entrance and doors, and erecting tall, worthy towers.
XXVI. Concerning the Dedication
We managed to have the chapel of St. Romanus dedicated to the service of God and his holy angels by that venerable man Archbishop Hugh of Rouen and by many other bishops. Those who serve God there as if, even as they sacrifice, they dwell at least partly in heaven, know how secluded, hallowed and convenient for the celebration of divine rites this place is. At the same dedication ceremony, two chapels in the lower nave of the church – one for St. Hippolytus and his companions on one side and one for St. Nicholas on the other – were dedicated by those venerable men Manassas, Bishop of Meaux, and Peter, Bishop of Senlis. The single glorious procession of these three men went out through the door of Saint Eustace; then passed in front of the main doors with a throng of singing clergy and a crowd of rejoicing laymen, the bishops walking in front and carrying out the holy consecration; then, thirdly, they entered through the single door of the cemetery which had been transferred from the old building to the new. And when this festive work had been completed to the honor of almighty God and we, a bit tired, were preparing to officiate in the upper part, they revived us, very graciously encouraging us not to be depressed by consideration of the labor and funding problems that lay before us.
XXVII. Concerning the Cast and Gilded Doors
Having summoned bronze casters and chosen sculptors, we erected the main doors, on which are represented the passion and resurrection or ascension of Christ, with great expense and heavy outlay for their gilding as befits such a noble portico. We also set up new ones on the right, and old ones on the left beneath the mosaic which, contrary to modern custom, we had placed in the tympanum. We also arranged to have the towers and upper crenelations of the front altered with an eye to beauty and, should circumstances require, to utility. We also ordered that, lest it be forgotten, the year of the consecration should be inscribed in copper-gilt letters in this way:
- For the glory of the church which nurtured and raised him,
- Suger strove for the glory of the church, Sharing with
- you what is yours, oh martyr Denis. He prays that by your
- prayers he should become a sharer in Paradise.The year
- when it was consecrated was the one thousand, one
- hundred and fortieth year of the Word.
Furthermore, the verses on the doors are these:
- All you who seek to honor these doors,
- Marvel not at the gold and expense but at the
- craftsmanship of the work.
- The noble work is bright, but, being nobly bright, the work
- Should brighten the minds, allowing them to travel through
- the lights
- To the true light, where Christ is the true door.
- The golden door defines how it is imminent in these things.
- The dull mind rises to the truth through material things,
- And is resurrected from its former submersion when the
- light is seen.
And on the lintel was written,
- Receive, stern Judge, the prayers of your Suger,
- Let me be mercifully numbered among your sheep.
XXVIII. Concerning the Enlargement of the Upper Choir
In the same year, cheered by so holy and auspicious a work, we hurried to begin on the upper part of the chamber of divine atonement, in which the perpetual and frequent victim of our redemption should be sacrificed in secret without disturbance by the crowds. And as can be found in the treatise on the consecration of this upper part, we, along with our brothers and fellow servants, were mercifully enabled to bring such a glorious and famous work to a favorable conclusion, God having aided us and given success to us and our endeavors. We were all the more indebted to God and the holy martyrs inasmuch as he, by long postponement, had reserved the task for our age and labor. “For who am I, and what is my father’s house” (I Kings 18:18) that I should have presumed to begin or hoped to complete such a noble, pleasing edifice unless, relying upon the aid of divine mercy and of the holy martyrs, I applied myself completely, mind and body, to the enterprise? Yet he who gave the will also provided the power, and because the good work was present in the will, it came to perfection with God’s help.
That the divine hand which accomplished such things protected this glorious work is shown by the fact that it allowed the entire magnificent edifice, from the crypt below to the summit of the vaults above, varied by the division of numerous arches and columns, and even the roof, to be completed in three years and three months. Thus the inscription of the earlier consecration, with only one word added, would include the year of completion of this building: The year when it was consecrated was the one thousand, one hundred, forty and fourth year of the Word.
To these verses of the inscription we decided to add the following:
- When the new rear part is joined to that in front,
- The church shines, brightened in its middle.
- For bright is that which is brightly coupled with the bright
- And which the new light pervades,
- Bright is the noble work Enlarged in our time
- I, who was Suger, having been leader
- While it was accomplished.
Eager, therefore, to follow up on my successes, since I desired nothing under heaven except to pursue the honor of mother church – which had suckled the babe with maternal affection, supported the stumbling youth, powerfully strengthened the mature man, and solemnly placed him among the leaders of church and kingdom – we applied ourselves to completion of the work and plunged into the task of raising the transept wings of the church to correspond with the earlier and later parts which would be joined together by them.
XXIX. Concerning the Continuation of Both Works
This being done, when, through the persuasion of certain people, we had applied our effort to work on a front tower (the other already having been completed), the divine will, we believe, drew us away to another project: We would endeavor to renovate the middle part of the church, which they call the nave, conforming and equalizing it with the two remodeled parts. Nevertheless, we would save as much as possible of the old walls, on which, according to the testimony of ancient writers, the high priest Lord Jesus Christ had placed his hand. We sought to safeguard both reverence for the ancient consecration and a harmonious coherence with the modern work according to the pattern already established.
The main reason for this change of schedule was that if, in our time or that of our successors, work on the nave of the church proceeded only intermittently when the towers allowed it, then the nave as planned would be completed only much later or, if any misfortune should occur, never at all. For those in charge would have been troubled by no difficulty that did not result in a long delay in joining the old and new parts. But since a beginning has now been made with the extension of the aisles, the whole thing will be finished by us or by those whom God may elect, He Himself helping. For remembrance of the past is foresight of the future. Moreover, the most generous lord, who among other, greater things has provided the makers of our marvelous windows with opulent sapphire and ready cash of around seven hundred pounds or more, will not allow the project to remain incomplete through lack of funds. He is, indeed, “the beginning and the end” (Rev. 21:6).
XXX. Concerning the Ornaments of the Church
Lest forgetfulness, the rival of truth, should slip in and snatch away a good example for future behavior, we have thought it worthwhile to provide a description of the ornaments with which the hand of God has adorned the church, his chosen bride. We confess our lord the thrice-blessed Denis to be so generous and benevolent that, as we believe, he has intervened for us before God so strongly and so often, obtaining so many and so great benefits, that we could have done a hundred times more than we actually did for his church if human weakness, shifting circumstances and changing customs had not prevented it. Nevertheless, what we, by the gift of God, have collected for him is hereby listed.
XXXI. Concerning the Golden Altar Frontal in the Upper Choir
Into this panel, which stands before his most sacred body, we estimate that we have put around forty-two marks of gold, a rich abundance of precious gems – hyacinths, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and topazes – and a variety of pearls, more than we ever hoped to find. You would see kings, princes and many outstanding men, imitating us, remove the rings from their fingers and order that the gold, gems and precious pearls of the rings be set in the panel. In the same way archbishops and bishops, depositing the rings of their investiture there for safekeeping, devoutly offered them up to God and his saints. Such a large crowd of gem-dealers flowed in upon us from various kingdoms and nations that we sought to buy no more than they hastened to sell, money being provided by all. The verses on this panel are as follows:
- Great Denis, open the doors of Paradise,
- And protect Suger through your holy defenses.
- May you, who have built a new chamber for yourself through us,
- Cause us to be received in the chamber of heaven
- And to be satiated at the heavenly table
- Instead of the present one.
- That which is signified pleases more than that which signifies.
Because it was proper for us to place the most sacred bodies of our lords in the upper vault as nobly as possible, and one of the side- panels of their most holy sarcophagus had been torn off on some unknown occasion, we put aside fifteen marks of gold and took pains to have the rear side and the whole outside container, above and below, gilded with about forty ounces. Moreover, we had the receptacles which contain the holy bodies covered with copper-gilt panels and polished stone attached over the stone vaults, with continuous gates which would keep unruly crowds at a distance yet allow distinguished persons to view these receptacles with great devotion and a flood of tears. Here are the verses on these sacred tombs:
- Where the heavenly host stands guard,
- The people beseech and bemoan the ashes of the saints,
- While the clergy sing in ten-voiced harmony.
- The prayers of the pious are directed to their spirits
- And if they are acceptable to them their sins are forgiven.
- The bodies of the saints are entombed here in peace. May they carry off after them us who beseech them with many prayers.
- This place is an admirable asylum for those who come.
- Here is safe flight for the accused,
- The avenger is subjected to him.
XXXII. Concerning the Golden Cross
Had we been able, we would have insisted that the sacred, life-giving cross, healing banner of our savior’s eternal victory, of which the apostle says, “God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of Christ” (Gal. 6:14), be adorned all the more gloriously inasmuch as it is “the sign of the Son of Man who will appear in the heavens” (Mtt. 24:30) at the end, not only to men but to angels, and we would have greeted it perpetually as did the apostle Andrew: “Hail, cross, dedicated to Christ’s body and adorned with his members like pearls.” Nevertheless, since we could not do as we wished, we wished to do as well as we could and, God providing, we worked to fulfill our plans. Thus, searching all about (personally and through our agents) for a large supply of precious pearls and gems, preparing as costly a supply of gold and gems as we could find for such ornamentation, we called together the most experienced artisans from various places. Working cautiously and accurately, they were to exalt the venerable cross on its reverse side by the addition of these wondrous gems, while on the front, in sight of the sacrificing priest, they would display the sacred image of our lord and savior in remembrance of his suffering and as still suffering on the cross. Of course the blessed Denis had lain in that same spot for five hundred years and more, from Dagobert’s time to our own.
We do not wish to pass in silence over one humorous yet noble miracle which the Lord displayed to us in this connection. Just when I was in need of gems and unable to purchase enough (for rarity makes them more expensive), monks from three abbeys belonging to two different orders – that is, from Citeaux, from another abbey of the same order, and from Fontevrault – entered our little room adjoining the church and offered for sale a greater supply of gems than we would have hoped to find in ten years. They had obtained them as alms from Count Theobold, who had received them through his brother King Stephen of England from the treasury of his uncle the late King Henry. Theobold had stored them up throughout his life in marvelous vessels. We, however, freed from the burden of searching for gems, thanked God and paid four hundred pounds for the whole collection, although they were worth a good deal more.
In order to perfect such a holy ornament, we added, not only these, but a great number of other expensive gems. If memory serves us correctly, we recall having applied around eighty marks of refined gold. Through the work of several Lotharingian goldsmiths -sometimes five, sometimes seven – we were able to have completed, in barely two years, the pedestal adorned with the four evangelists, the pillar upon which the sacred image stands, the story of the savior with testimonies of allegories from the Old Testament indicated on it, and the capital above which renders wondrously the death of our Lord.
Hastening to exalt the decoration of such a fine and holy instrument, the mercy of our savior brought us Pope Eugenius to celebrate holy Easter as is the custom with popes visiting Gaul, honoring the sacred apostolate of blessed Denis just as we had seen his predecessors Calixtus and Innocent do before him. He solemnly consecrated the crucifix on that day. From the title “Of the True Cross, which exceeds Each and Every Pearl,” he assigned to it a portion from his own chapel. Publicly, in the presence of all, by the sword of the blessed Peter and the sword of the Holy Spirit, he anathematized whoever should steal anything from this place or recklessly raise his hand against it; and we had this anathema inscribed at the foot of the cross.
We hastened to decorate the main altar of the blessed Denis, which had only a beautiful and sumptuous frontal panel from the time of Charles the Bald, the third emperor; for at this very altar we had been dedicated to the monastic life. We had it entirely covered, adding gold panels on each side. And a fourth, even more precious one, so that the whole altar would appear to be gold all the way around. On the sides we placed two candlesticks of King Louis, the son of Philip, so that they would not be stolen on some occasion. We added hyacinths, emeralds, and various other precious gems, ordering a diligent search for others which could be added. These are the verses on the panels: On the right side,
- The Abbot Suger put up these altar panels
- In addition to the one already given by King Charles.
- Make the unworthy worthy by your forgiveness, Virgin
- Let the fountain of mercy wash away the sins of king and abbot.
On the left side,
- If an impious man should plunder this excellent altar,
- Let him perish along with Judas, equally damned.
The rear panel, a product of marvelous workmanship and lavish expenditure – for the barbarian artists were more lavish than our own – we exalted with a relief that was marvelous in both form and material so that certain people might say, “The workmanship surpassed the material.” Much of what we had acquired and an even greater number of previously-owned ornaments which we were afraid of losing – for example, a gold chalice with a mutilated foot and several other things – we had fastened there. And since the variety of materials – the gold, gems and pearls – cannot be understood easily through visual examination bereft of verbal description, we crowned this work, which discloses its meaning only to the literate and shines with the radiance of delightful allegories, with a written explanation. So that these allegories might be clearly understood, we affixed verses explaining them.
- Crying out with a loud voice the people shout “Hosanna” to Christ.
- The true victim given in the meal bears all.
- He who saves all on the cross hastens to bear the cross.
- The flesh of Christ seals the promise to Abraham’s offspring.
- Melchizadech makes an offering because Abraham defeats the enemy.
- They who seek Christ with the cross bear a cluster of grapes
- on a staff.
When, out of affection for the Church, we contemplate these new and old ornaments, seeing that admirable cross of St. Eloi, the lesser crosses, and that incomparable ornament commonly called “the crest” all placed on the golden altar, I say, sighing right down to my heart, “Every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, the topaz, and the jaspar, the chrysolite and the onyx, and the beryl, the sapphire and the carbuncle, and the emerald” (Ez. 28:13). Those familiar with the properties of gems note to their astonishment that no type except the carbuncle is lacking here, but rather all abound in great number.
Thus sometimes when, because of my delight in the beauty of the house of God, the multicolor loveliness of the gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation, transporting me from material to immaterial things, has persuaded me to examine the diversity of holy virtues, then I seem to see myself existing on some level, as it were, beyond our earthly one, neither completely in the slime of earth nor completely in the purity of heaven. By the gift of God I can be transported in an anagogical manner from this inferior level to that superior one.
I used to confer with Jerusalemites, and I was eager to learn from those who had seen the treasures of Constantinople and decorations of Hagia Sophia whether these here were worth anything in comparison. When some considered these here to be greater, it seemed to us that, through fear of the Franks, those marvelous objects of which we had once heard had been prudently put away lest by the impetuous greed of a few stupid people the friendship nurtured between Greek and Latin should suddenly change to sedition and warfare; for cunning is a preeminently Greek characteristic. Thus it may be that there is more displayed here, where it is safe, than there, where it is unsafe because of disorders. From many trustworthy men, and from Archbishop Hugh of Laon, we have heard wonderful and nearly incredible reports concerning the superior ornamentation of Hagia Sophia and other churches. If these reports are true – or more precisely, because we believe their testimony is indeed true – then such inestimable and incomparable treasures should be set out for the judgment of many people. “Let every man abound in his own sense” (Rom. 14:5).
To me, I confess, it always has seemed right that the most expensive things should be used above all for the administration of the holy eucharist. If golden vessels, vials and mortars were used to collect “the blood of goats or calves or the red heifer, how much more” should gold vases, precious stones and whatever is most valuable among created things be set out with continual reverence and full devotion “to receive the blood of Jesus Christ” (Heb. 9:1 3f). Certainly neither we nor our possessions are fit to perform this function. Even if by a new creation our substance should be changed into that of the holy cherubim and seraphim it would still offer an insufficient and unworthy service for so great and ineffable a victim. Nevertheless, we have such a great propitiation for our sins.
To be sure, those who criticize us argue that holy mind, pure heart and faithful intention should suffice for this task. These are, we agree, the things that matter most; yet we profess that we should also serve God with the external ornaments of sacred vessels, in all internal purity and in all external nobility, and nowhere is this to be done as much as in the service of the holy sacrifice. For it is incumbent upon us in every case to serve our redeemer in the most fitting way for in all things, without exception, he has not refused to provide for us, has united our nature with his in a single, admirable individual, and “setting us on his right hand” he has promised “that we will truly possess his kingdom” (Mtt. 25:33f.) He is our lord who “lives and reigns forever” (Tobit 9:11; Rev. 1:18, etc.).
Because of our reverence for sacred relics, we also took up the task of renovating the altar which, according to the testimony of the ancients, was called “the Holy One” (For so King Louis, son of Philip, who was brought up here, had heard it called by the older people of the place from his early childhood, as he used to say.) It was apparently the worse for wear due to age, lack of faithful care, and frequent movement in order to decorate it, since it is arranged differently for different feasts, the more distinguished ones receiving more distinguished decoration.
The holy porphyry stone on top of the altar, appropriate both qualitatively by its color and quantitatively by its size, was set in a hollow frame of wood covered with gold. This frame was very damaged by the passage of time. The front part of the frame was believed to contain, through cunning workmanship, an arm of St. James the Apostle, and a document inside said as much through an opening of the clearest crystal. Another document within announced that in the right-hand part was hidden an arm of the protomartyr Stephen, while the left-hand part contained an arm of St. Vincent the Levite and Martyr. For some time desiring to be fortified with the protection of such great and holy relics, I had longed ardently to see them and kiss them if I had not feared to displease God. Therefore, taking courage from my devotion and believing in the truth of the ancient testimony, we chose a date and selected the manner in which the holy relics were to be examined.
The date was that of the martyrdom of our lords the blessed martyrs, the eighth day before the ides of October. Archbishops and bishops of various provinces were there. They had come eagerly to bring devout prayers for this solemn celebration, as if paying their debt to the apostolate of Gaul. The archbishops of Lyons, Reims, Tours and Rouen were there, as were the bishops of Soissons, Beauvais, Senlis, Meaux, Rennes, St. Malo and Vannes. There were also a large number of abbots, monks and clerics as well as an uncountable crowd of laity, male and female.
On this solemn day, therefore, after the office of terce had been sung and the huge procession was assembled in view of all, then, trusting in the truth of the matter as if we had seen it all ourselves (though we were dependent on the mere testimony and inscription of our forefathers), we gathered the archbishops, bishops, abbots and other high-ranking officials to bring out the altar, explaining that we wanted to open it and look at the treasure of holy relics contained therein. Some of our intimates cautiously suggested that it might have been better for our reputation and that of the church as well if we had chosen to investigate the truth of the inscriptions in private. Fired by my own faith, I replied that, if the inscriptions were true, I would rather have it discovered publicly than check it secretly and invite the skepticism of those who had not been present. Thus we brought the aforesaid altar into our midst and summoned goldsmiths, who carefully opened the little compartments containing the holy arms, upon which sat the little crystals with their inscriptions. God granting, just as we had hoped, with all looking on, we found everything there.
We also discovered the reason why the relics had been deposited there. The Emperor Charles III, who lies gloriously interred beneath this altar, arranged by imperial edict that they be removed from the imperial repository and placed with him for the protection of his soul and body. We also found there evidence, sealed with his ring, which pleased us very much. He would not have ordered that seven lamps in silver vessels (since gone to pieces and remade by us) should burn incessantly, day and night, with perpetual fire before that altar called “the Holy One” unless he placed the highest hopes for his body and soul in the presence of these holy relics. He confirmed with his gold seal that his property Reuil, along with its dependencies, should be used to cover the cost of these relics, the celebration of the anniversary of his death, and a feast for his people on this occasion. That is also why, in nearly sixty different celebrations, six great and worthy wax candles, the likes of which are rarely or never placed in the church, are lit around this altar. It is also why this altar is adorned with noble ornaments as often as is that of the blessed Denis.
We also erected the cross, admirable for its size, which is placed between the altar and Charles’ tomb. According to tradition the most noble necklace of Queen Nanthilda, wife of King Dagobert, founder of the church, was affixed to the middle of this cross, while another (smaller but unequaled according to the testimony of the most experienced artisans) was affixed to the forehead of St. Denis. The latter was done mainly through reverence for the iron collar of St. Denis, which, having enclosed the neck of the blessed Den is in the prison of Glaucin, has deserved worship and veneration from us and from all.
Moreover, in the same part of the church, the venerable abbot of Corbie, Robert of blessed memory, professed and raised from childhood in this church, whom we, God granting, proposed as abbot of the monastery at Corbie, had a beautifully gilded silver panel set up in recognition of his profession and in gratitude for the many benefits bestowed by the church.
Also, sympathizing with the discomfort of those brethren who constantly participated in the services and whose health was undermined by the coldness of the marble and copper, we altered the choir to its present form and enlarged it to accord with the increase in size which, with God’s help, our community had enjoyed.
As for the ancient pulpit, which was admirable for the delicate and in our times irreplaceable sculpture of its ivory tablets and which surpassed human evaluation in its representation of ancient subjects, we had it repaired after we had recovered the panels which had been moldering all too long in and under the repository of the money chests. Once we had restored the copper animals on the right side to prevent so much admirable material from perishing, we had the pulpit set up in such a way as to read the holy gospels in a higher place. In the early days of our tenure as abbot we had removed a certain obstruction which divided the church with a dark wall, so that the beauty of the church would not be obscured by such barriers.
We also restored the noble throne of the glorious King Dagobert, on which, as tradition relates, the Frankish kings sat to receive the homage of their nobles after they had assumed power. We did so in recognition of its exalted function and because of the value of the work itself.
We also had the eagle in the middle of the choir regilded, for it had been rubbed bare of gold by the frequent touch of admirers.
We also had painted, by the hands of many masters sought out in various nations, a splendid variety of new windows below and above, from the first in the chevet representing the tree of Jesse to the one over the principal door of the entrance. One of these, urging us onward from the material to the immaterial, shows the apostle Paul turning a mill and the prophets carrying sacks to the mill. The accompanying verse says,
- By working the mill, Paul, you take the flour from the bran.
- You make known the inner meaning of Moses’ law.
- From so many grains is made the true bread without bran,
- The perpetual food of men and angels.
In the same window, where the veil is removed from Moses’ face, it says,
- What Moses veils, the doctrine of Christ unveils.
- Those who despoil Moses bare the Law.
In the same window, under the ark of the covenant,
- From the ark of the covenant is established the altar of Christ.
- There, by a greater covenant, life wishes to die.
Also in the same window, where the lion and lamb unseal the book,
- He who is the great God, lion and lamb, unseals the book.
- The lamb or lion becomes flesh joined to God.
In another window, where the pharaoh’s daughter finds Moses in the basket,
- Moses in the basket is that child
- Whom the church, the royal maiden, nurses with holy mind.
In the same window, where the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush,
- Just as the bush is seen to burn yet is not consumed,
- So he who is full of the divine fire burns yet is not consumed.
Also in the same window, where the pharaoh and his horsemen are submerged in the sea,
- What baptism does to the good,
- A like form but an unlike cause does to the pharaoh’s army.
Also in the same window, where Moses raises the bronze serpent,
- Just as the bronze serpent slays all serpents,
- So Christ raised on the cross slays his enemies.
In the same window, where Moses receives the Law on the mountain,
- The law having been given to Moses,
- The grace of Christ comes to its aid.
- Grace gives life, the letter kills.
Since their marvelous workmanship and the cost of the sapphire and painted glass makes these windows very valuable, we appointed a master craftsman for their protection and maintenance, just as we also appointed a skilled goldsmith for the gold and silver ornaments. These would receive their allowances and whatever was apportioned to them in addition, such as coins from the altar and flour from the common storehouse of the brethren, and they were never to neglect their duties.
We also had seven candlesticks of enameled and excellently gilded metalwork made, since the ones made by the emperor Charles for the blessed Denis seemed to be ruined by age.
Moreover, with the devotion due to the blessed Denis, we acquired vessels of gold and precious stones for the service of the Lord’s table, in addition to the ones already donated for this purpose by kings of the Franks and those devoted to the church. To be specific, we ordered a big gold chalice containing one hundred forty ounces of gold and decorated with precious gems (hyacinths and topazes) as a substitute for another which had been pawned during the time of our predecessor.
We also offered to the blessed Denis, along with some flowers from the empress’ crown, another very precious vessel of praise, carved in the form of a boat, which King Louis, son of Philip, had left in pawn for nearly ten years. When it was offered for our inspection, we had purchased it with the king’s permission for sixty marks of silver. This vessel, marvelous for both the quality and the quantity of its precious stones, it decorated with verroterie cloisonné work by St. Eloi and is considered by all goldsmiths to be very precious.
BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX: APOLOGY
By the time Suger was rebuilding the abbey church at St. Denis, a new religious order was attracting attention throughout Europe. The Cistercians began in 1098 when some Benedictine monks in search of a more rigorous life settled at Citeaux. Their monastery attracted few converts until 1112, when a young nobleman named Bernard persuaded approximately thirty companions, including his uncle and all but one of his brothers, to enter with him. (The remaining brother was underage. He entered later.) From that moment, the community increased steadily and within a year was sending groups off to found new houses. By 1130 there were thirty Cistercian houses and by 1168 there were 288.
In 1115 Bernard became abbot of the new Cistercian monastery at Clairvaux, a position he held until his death in 1153. Bernard had little time to tend his flock, though, since he soon became a religious superstar. Recognized as the foremost preacher of his day, he traveled widely, wrote prolifically, and was involved to the hilt in papal politics, opposition to heresy, and the planning of a crusade.
Bernard was the chief spokesman for Cistercian values. Monastic life was to be austere and disciplined. Food, buildings and even worship were to be kept simple. Monasteries were to be built away from population centers, thus shielding the brothers from distraction and excessive contributions.
The Apology is part of a running feud with the Benedictine abbey of Cluny and its many dependent houses. Cluniac monasticism tended to be more integrated with society than Cistercian. Its houses extended hospitality to travelers and some Cluniac abbeys were important pilgrimage centers. Thus abbey churches were often large and sumptuously decorated, their services complex and elaborate.
In 1125 William, abbot of St. Thierry, asked Bernard to write something which would defend the Cistercians against the charge of slandering the Cluniacs and, at the same time, criticize Cluniac laxity. The result was the Apology, which begins by condemning self-righteous criticism and then proceeds to ridicule Cluniac excesses in food, clothing and buildings. Only the section on buildings is included here.
But these are minor abuses. I shall go on to major ones which seem minor because they are so common. I say nothing of the enormous height, extravagant length and unnecessary width of the churches, of their costly polishings and curious paintings which catch the worshipper’s eye and dry up his devotion, things which seem to me in some sense a revival of ancient Jewish rites. Let these things pass, let us say they are all to the honor of God. Nevertheless, just as the pagan poet Persius inquired of his fellow pagans, so I as a monk ask my fellow monks: “Tell me, oh pontiffs,” he said, “what is gold doing in the sanctuary?” I say (following his meaning rather than his metre): “Tell me, poor men, if you really are poor what is gold doing in the sanctuary?”
There is no comparison here between bishops and monks. We know that the bishops, debtors to both the wise and unwise, use material beauty to arouse the devotion of a carnal people because they cannot do so by spiritual means. But we who have now come out of that people, we who have left the precious and lovely things of the world for Christ, we who, in order to win Christ, have reckoned all beautiful, sweet-smelling, fine-sounding, smooth-feeling, good-tasting things– in short, all bodily delights–as so much dung, what do we expect to get out of them? Admiration from the foolish? Offerings from the ignorant? Or, scattered as we are among the gentiles, are we learning their tricks and serving their idols?
I shall speak plainly: Isn’t greed, a form of idolatry, responsible for all this? Aren’t we seeking contributions rather than spiritual profit? “How?” you ask. “In a strange and wonderful way,” I answer. Money is scattered about in such a way that it will multiply. It is spent so that it will increase. Pouring it out produces more of it. Faced with expensive but marvelous vanities, people are inspired to contribute rather than to pray. Thus riches attract riches and money produces more money. I don’t know why, but the wealthier a place, the readier people are to contribute to it. Just feast their eyes on gold-covered relics and their purses will open. Just show them a beautiful picture of some saint. The brighter the colors, the saintlier he’ll appear to them. Men rush to kiss and are invited to contribute. There is more admiration for beauty than veneration for sanctity. Thus churches are decorated, not simply with jeweled crowns, but with jeweled wheels illuminated as much by their precious stones as by their lamps. We see candelabra like big bronze trees, marvelously wrought, their gems glowing no less than their flames. What do you think is the purpose of such things? To gain the contrition of penitents or the admiration of spectators?
On vanity of vanities, yet no more vain than insane! The church is resplendent in her walls and wanting in her poor. She dresses her stones in gold and lets her sons go naked. The eyes of the rich are fed at the expense of the indigent. The curious find something to amuse them and the needy find nothing to sustain them.
What sort of reverence is shown to the saints when we place their pictures on the floor and then walk on them? Often someone spits in an angel’s mouth. Often the face of a saint is trampled by some passerby’s feet. If sacred images mean nothing to us, why don’t we at least economize on the paint? Why embellish what we’re about to befoul? Why decorate what we must walk upon? What good is it to have attractive pictures where they’re usually stained with dirt?
Finally, what good are such things to poor men, to monks, to spiritual men? Perhaps the poet’s question could be answered with words from the prophet: “Lord, I have loved the beauty of your house, and the place where your glory dwells” (Ps. 26:8). I agree. Let us allow this to be done in churches because, even if it is harmful to the vain and greedy, it is not such to the simple and devout. But in cloisters, where the brothers are reading, what is the point of this ridiculous monstrosity, this shapely misshapenness, this misshapen shapeliness? What is the point of those unclean apes, fierce lions, monstrous centaurs, half-men, striped tigers, fighting soldiers and hunters blowing their horns? In one place you see many bodies under a single head, in another several heads on a single body. Here on a quadruped we see the tail of a serpent. Over there on a fish we see the head of a quadruped. There we find a beast that is horse up front and goat behind, here another that is horned animal in front and horse behind. In short, so many and so marvelous are the various shapes surrounding us that it is more pleasant to read the marble than the books, and to spend the whole day marveling over these things rather than meditating on the law of God. Good Lord! If we aren’t embarrassed by the silliness of it all, shouldn’t we at least be disgusted by the expense?