Gothic Architecture, St. Denis, The Cult of The Virgin and Scholasticism

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1. How might Abbot Suger have conveyed his religious beliefs through the architecture of St. Denis?

Gothic art and architecture are often credited with beginning with Abbot Suger’s construction of St. Denis. According to Wren, Suger had two primary motivations: he was looking to combine both church and state, but, on a more personal level, wanted to show people how to deepen their own bonds with God (1987, 240). Those two factors, coupled with an appreciation for the work of Frenchman Bernard of Clairvaux, formed the Gothic construction of St. Denis. Bernard’s appeal to the masses to renew their spiritual connection to the church was a leading driver behind Suger’s vision.

To understand how Suger’s religious beliefs may have motivated the design of St. Denis, it is important to understand what Bernard believed as well. According to Wren, Bernard was a firm believer in God as a loving entity who wanted men and women to seek redemption (1987, 241). For both Bernard and Suger, religion appears to have been about a loving, deep and spiritual relationship with God, which can be seen in the resulting construction of St. Denis.

Suger writes in Wren’s text that “it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe…and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner” (1987, 242). Those are Suger’s words about his experience in St. Denis, which was adorned with designs such as the Gothic Rib Vault that allowed light to stream into the abbey, and the jewels and cross. Suger essentially used material goods to attract people to the Saint-Denis in the hopes of having them connect with God on the same personal he aspires to achieve.

2. How might the Cult of the Virgin be apparent in the art and architecture in Gothic Europe?

The Virgin Mary and the Cult of the Virgin is a common theme throughout Gothic art and architecture, and many works featuring her were initially commissioned by the wealthy at the time. Gardner writes that the most famous of the Gothic-area Virgin Mary image appears in the abbey at St. Denis (2013, 363). The elements that reflect Gothic art include the large rectangular box on which Mary stands and the thick folds of her robes. Furthermore, Gardner notes that gothic works in general were often rich in nature, and the heaviness of the box and golden tones of the statue convey the artistic and architectural influences that stemmed from the Gothic movement.

3. How might the new 12th Century philosophy of Scholasticism be reflected in Gothic architecture?

Scholasticism is a philosophy that was developed by a group of professors at the Cathedral School that were known as the Schoolmen. Of them, the most famous is Peter Abelard, who would later come into conflict with Bernard of Clairvaux, one of Abbot Suger’s greatest influencers. The philosophy was impacted by Aristotle’s teachings.

Scholasticism as a philosophy wanted to prove that reason was enough to lead to truths, without the use of divine revelation as taught by the Catholic Church. It was a method that drew the criticism of Bernard of Clairvaux, who would successfully petition the Church to discredit the Scholasticism philosophy. Despite Bernard’s efforts, however, Scholasticism would go on to become very influential in later cultures and is also present in modern architecture and design.

As it pertains to art, scholasticism is not expressly present in Gothic architecture, but art historians have noted similarities between Gothic design and the philosophy, especially in relation to St. Denis. Here, scholars note that certain architectural aspects of St. Denis, including the portals and vaulted end, are similar to the teachings of Scholasticism, as both Gothic design and this philosophy began in France. The geometry used to relate the parts, as well as the organization of the portals on Gothic churches, appear to be similar to the principles of Scholasticism.

A parallel between St. Denis’ Gothic structure and the Scholasticism philosophy would certainly be fascinating, as Abbot Suger was greatly influenced by his love for God and by the work of Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard spoke out harshly against Abelard and his work, so there would be quite a bit of irony for Suger’s St. Denis to evoke parallels with Scholasticism.

Bibliography

Gardner, Helen, and Fred S. Kleiner.Gardner's art through the ages: The Western perspective. Fourteenth ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2013.

Wren, Linnea Holmer, David J. Wren, and Janine M. Carter. Perspectives on Western art: source documents and readings from the ancient Near East through the Middle Ages. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.