Along with the summer solstice, June brings the birthday of Gothic Light. Though it now shines throughout Northern Europe, Gothic radiance first beamed into a single cathedral on the edge of Paris. On a single June morning. In the year 1144…
The Abbot Suger was a wisp of a man, kind and industrious, with a passion for all that sparkled. His cloistered cell was more comfortable than most. Unlike his ascetic rival, the abbot felt monks need not suffer endlessly, nor shun finery in contemplation of the divine. The abbot’s own cell, though lit only by candles, included an occasional cloth or curtain. Yet what truly shocked the abbot’s rival was the church’s worldly riches — gold and pearl and precious stones. The abbot explained that it was not wealth he sought in gems, but a celebration of God’s own light.
The Abbot Suger had been in charge of Saint Denis for just two years when he began planning a wholesale reconstruction of the church. The ancient edifice, he said, suffered “grave inconveniences.” It was cramped, even “moldering away.” Columns were shaky, walls cracked, and few felt the gloomy church worthy of its namesake, the patron saint of France. Such a treasure, the abbot argued, deserved a gilded frame, so in 1124, as France worried about another war with England, as another Crusade was mounted, the Abbot Suger began dreaming, and planning.
The planning took more than a dozen years, but by 1137, having consulted with architects and clerics, the abbot was ready. He assembled a team of masons, stone cutters, and other craftsmen, then lay awake at night fretting about details. Dressed in his mud-brown cassock, the diminutive man roamed forests searching for statuesque oaks and chestnuts, hailing the miracle of finding all the lumber needed for scaffolds and roofing. Equally miraculous was the discovery of a “wonderful quarry. . . yielding very strong stone such as in quantity and quantity had never been found in these regions.” Just seven years after the rebuilding began, the church apse, choir, and rose windows were finished. In the spring of 1144, invitations went out to the most powerful men in France and England. On June 11, a pompous procession of holy men, accompanied by Louis VII and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, entered the church at Saint Denis. As they gazed upward, their mouths fell open and they became children again.
Back in the mid-sixth century, the architects of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) were the first to bring the light of heaven indoors. The dome of the Hagia Sophia, soaring to nearly 200 feet, is encircled by forty windows whose beams streak like swords through the hazy interior. In the five centuries that followed this Byzantine masterpiece, mosques and Romanesque churches had as many windows as possible, yet each weakened its wall, increasing the risk of collapse. Windows in Spain’s cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, begun in 1075, comprise just 25 percent of the wall surface. Abbot Suger wanted more windows, more light.
Working with architects whose names remain unknown, the abbot adopted three structural improvements that let Gothic light to shine. The ribbed vault featured cris-crossed arches that channeled gravitational stress into adjacent columns. The pointed arch proved stronger than a Roman arch, enabling windows to be stretched as if on a rack. And the flying buttress, whose graceful exterior arms surround the apse at Saint Denis, supported the soaring stones, letting vaults rise still higher, enabling glass to serve as wall. “The arrangement,” wrote the historian Henry Adams, “is almost too clever for gravity.” And the arrangement delighted Abbot Suger. His new church’s choir was a “crown of light.” His clerestory (from the French claire for “shining”) beamed forth. His “most luminous windows” filled 78 percent of Saint Denis’ wall surface, giving light a fresh new purpose.
Today, nearly 900 years after its creation, this first Gothic light still shines. Here in the church of Saint Denis is the light Abbot Suger bestowed upon the Middle Ages. Step inside the door, crane your neck, and open your eyes to wonder. Saint Denis is half the size of Paris’ Notre Dame, yet the latter, for all the fame of its facade, is gloomy and cavernous inside. Saint Denis, by contrast, uses its daring design to yield a light worthy of eternity. If Genesis were somehow sculpted in granite, these stones would be its edict: “Let there be Light!” If light could be played by an orchestra, this would be its overture. This — the first Gothic cathedral. Roaming in the warm light, I gape at the glittering walls and the two enormous rose windows in greens, blues, and reds. And there in one glass panel, kneeling at the feet of the Virgin, is Abbot Suger — in green robe, eyes uplifted. Across the nave, Suger’s own words are carved in stone:
“For bright is that which is brightly coupled with the bright.
And bright is the noble edifice which is pervaded by the new light.”
Stay awhile and study the light. See how the colored windows dim when clouds move in, then suddenly blaze, as if Abbot Suger had made the sun a light switch. Each morning, east facing windows catch fire while those on the opposite wall remain dull and grey. Then in mid-afternoon, the sun fills the west windows, letting them burn until dusk. Light does this in every home, of course, but in Saint Denis it also tells stories, paints pictures, and makes a coloring book of the Bible. Visitors, visibly humbled, walk with hands clasped behind, speaking in hushed tones. Because most are French, Saint Denis is unlikely to be the first Gothic cathedral they have visited. But imagine if it were. Imagine entering it from the mud and misery of the Middle Ages. What promise would you not make to live in this light? Once bathed in it, you might doubt your chance of reaching paradise, yet the goal would be as clear as the light itself.
In the fall of 1150, as Saint Denis’s nave was converted to Gothic splendor, Abbot Suger contracted malaria. As Christmas approached, he lay on his death bed. His prayers to live through the holiday were answered, but he died in January 1151. By then, Gothic light was triumphant. “You paint for yourself the heavens and the gods of the heavens in [your] church,” one cleric had written to the abbot. Other men of faith conceived more enduring tributes.
Along with Louis VII and his queen, the Saint Denis convocation in 1144 had attracted seventeen bishops from France and beyond. Each went home and told his faithful – “we want one of those.” On through the twelfth century, great stone structures began to rise across northern France. Rouen (1145). Notre Dame de Paris (1163). Strasbourg (1176). In England, cathedrals were begun in Wells, Lincoln, and Salisbury. With time and technology, stained glass brightened, vaults soared, and the abbot’s holy light spread. Then the older churches, damaged by fire, were rebuilt in high Gothic. Canterbury (1174), Chartres (1194), Rheims (1211). . . Scholars now believe that more stone was quarried in Northern Europe during the Middle Ages than was used in Egypt’s pyramids.
The great Gothic cathedrals of Northern Europe now host nearly 40 million visitors a year, more than the combined attendance at the top ten U.S. National Parks. The enduring appeal of divine radiance is measured not in lumens but in hope. Paradise and its luster call the faithful, to leave behind the mud and stones and doubt. The Middle Ages put this light on its highest pedestal. Each cathedral focused beams that still speak to those in need. Here is the realm that awaits. Here is its light.