Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Wall Street Journal on Abbot Suger and Sacred Art

Opulence Fit for the King of Kings


It is one of the greatest liturgical objects of the Medieval world. Known as the Chalice of Abbot Suger, it was made about 1140 and used for more than six centuries for the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist at the Basilica of St. Denis, the Parisian abbey and church where, under the direction of Abbot Suger, the Gothic form of architecture was invented.

The chalice stands less than a hand high. At its heart is a fluted sardonyx cup carved in Hellenistic Alexandria about a century before Christ. Writing circa 1148 about his "precious chalice," the abbot described this cup of "partly sard and partly onyx, in which the red sard's hue, vying with the blackness of the onyx...seem to compete in trespassing on each other"—phrasing that reveals Suger's visual sensitivity and descriptive powers.

The cup was already more than a thousand years old when Suger had it made into a chalice by setting it into a gilded-silver enclosure atop a broad base. The monastery's craftsmen then added five medallions, of which only one original relief remains: that of Christ as Pantocrator. The chalice was further enriched with double-beading filigree designs, and with precious stones (some are actually glass) and pearls, adding to its luminous glory.

Suger, born in 1081 into a modest knightly family, at about age 12 was enrolled in the Abbey School of St. Denis. This was most fortuitous, for the institution was then powerful, and traced its origins back to Denis, the first Bishop of Paris. The banner French monarchs carried into battle was kept at St. Denis, along with the relics of this saintly protector of the realm. The original building had been consecrated by King Charlemagne in 775, establishing an institution that would serve as the royal abbey, church and necropolis until the execution of Louis XVI in 1793.

It was King Louis VI—whose son, the future Louis VII, was then being educated at St. Denis—who first took notice of the young Suger. A full measure of his rise at court can be seen in 1137 when Abbot Suger, the prince and some 400 escorting knights rode south to the royal son's wedding to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Her marriage gift to her husband of a rock-crystal bottle was in turn given by him to Suger, who had it mounted as a vessel for Eucharistic wine. In 1147, now-King Louis VII and Eleanor departed for the Holy Land (she in knee-high red boots) leading the Second Crusade. During their two-year absence, the kingdom was ruled by Abbot Suger, appointed by the king as the most powerful of three regents.

Suger was not so esteemed by Abelard, one half of the 12th century's other famed couple. Following the discovery of his illicit affair with Heloise (and their illegitimate son), Abelard had been sent to St. Denis; there he began to attack this royal church for its worldly manner. Suger and the king had Abelard removed.

Bernard of Clairvaux also would challenge the Sugerian ornamentation of St. Denis.

Read the rest of the article at the Wall Street Journal.

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