Writers' Workshop for ARCH 531 / McGill University / School of Architecture / Fall 2012

Week Five: Gold

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alberto read a passage today from Abbot Suger’s writings on the abbey church of St. Denis which pertained to the church’s main doors.  Of importance in these verses, among other things, is the relationship between gold and what the abbot refers to as the “True Light.”  How would you describe Suger’s stance on the use of gold?  Furthermore, what would St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a contemporary abbot who addressed similar concerns in a work called Apologia, make of Suger’s understanding of gilded or golden ornaments?

10 responses

  1. It is clear from Suger’s own writings that the importance of gilding, and richly elaborated details is of the utmost relevance. But the excesses of ornament is not the only thing of note. Suger writes: ‘Marvel not at the gold and expense but at the craftsmanship of the work.’ (XXVII) He continues by explaining the purpose of these dual attributes: ‘the work should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights, to the True Light where Christ is the true door.’ (XXVII) In this way, he describes the process through which one can attain this enlightenment through the work: ‘The dull mind rises in truth through that which is material and, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.’ (XXVII) This importance placed on the material as a means of attaining and understanding an immaterial truth (or light) as it were, is clearly what prompts such excesses.
    Bernard of Clairvaux’s beliefs are the complete opposite of Suger’s. For him, excess sullies that which is pure and right. By placing importance on the material flesh we are in essence strangling the soul: ‘How can we pamper the flesh and neglect the spirit?’ (VIII.16) As such, gild becomes more a means of begetting even more richness through inspiration: ‘The very sight of such sumptuous and exquisite baubles is sufficient to inspire men to make offerings, though not to say their prayers.’ (XII.28) Through his criticism, he encourages a separation from excessive displays of richness, and encourages a move towards humility and true prayer. ‘Oh, vanity of vanities, whose vanity is rivalled only by insanity! The walls of the church are aglow, but the poor of the Church go hungry.’ (XII.28)

    October 8, 2012 at 11:38 am

  2. Esiolé

    “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 France. Thus its renovation was a political as well as an architectural and religious event.” [1]

    Suger’s attitude on the use of gold is mainly conducted by religious concerns, as explained in his book The Book of Suger, Abbot of St.-Denis on what was done during his administration. The richness of gold is used to magnify the richness of the spirituality of the church, of the presence of God on earth. Thus, Suger writes these words on the cast and gilded doors: “[…] Marvel not at the gold and the expense but at the craftsmanship of the work. Bright is the noble work; […] the work should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights, to the True Light where Christ is the true door. […] The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material and, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.” [2] It is the craftsmanship that prevails over the simple use of the material. The splendour of the work and of the material go with the splendour of the purpose of its use. Suger uses a work of gold to enlighten the people of God’s presence on earth through the splendour of the material rather than to state the Church power and richness.

    However, for St. Bernard de Clairvaux, the meaning of True Light and the way to obtain it is quite different, if not completely opposite to Suger understanding of it. St. Bernard is part of a new order in the Church that first appeared at the end of the 11th century, in Citeaux. This new order, started by the Cistercians, is mainly about bringing back a more rigorous way of living in the Church hierarchy. The Benedictine abbey of Cluny, more integrated in society than the Cistercians, held much power – and gold. The building of large temples, rich pilgrimages centers triggered this growing irritation of the Cistercians, leading to the writing of St. Bernard’s Apologia. The Cistercians extol an austere and disciplined life, thus criticizing the laxity and the liberties in which Cluniacs lived. “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.” [3] This allusion to Jewish rites is quite thought provoking, for this particular view of gold is also echoed in the Holy Bible, first through the episode of the Golden Calf, during the Exodus. “And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: ‘This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.’, […] He saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses’ […] cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount.” [4] Interestingly enough, this passage sort of enlightens and exemplifies the wanderings of the Church in the building of rich temples supposed to glorify God. The episode of the Cleansing of the Tempe, in Matthew’s Gospel, goes in the same direction. “And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all of them who sold and bought in the temple, […] My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” [5] Thus, the True Light, as perceived by St. Bernard de Clairvaux, is certainly not about the material, the gold, the impression of the richness on the poor spirits. “What has gold to do in the sanctuary?” [6] “Isn’t greed, a form of idolatry, responsible for all this? Aren’t we seeking contributions rather than spiritual profit?” [7] Thus, for St. Bernard and the Cistercians, the True Light can only be observed if completely pure, in its simplest manifestation, in the humblest temple: for the glory of God, according to St. Bernard, is about true spirituality, true richness of faith rather than about ornament, gold and offerings.

    [1] Abbot Suger, translated by Erwin Panofsky. Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and its art treasures. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, Second Edition, 1979, p.47.
    [2] Ibid, p.47-49.
    [3] St. Bernard de Clairvaux, translated by David Burr, History Department, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA. Apology.
    [4] The Holy Bible, King James Version, Exodus 32: 4-19.
    [5] Ibid, Matthew 21: 12-13.
    [6] Abbot Suger, translated by Erwin Panofsky. Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and its art treasures. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, Second Edition, 1979, p.15.
    [7] St. Bernard de Clairvaux, translated by David Burr, History Department, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA. Apology.

    October 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm

  3. Trebuh

    Suger became the Abbot of Saint-Denis in 1122 until his death in 1151. One of his ambitions was to aggrandize the Abbey of Saint-Denis. In addition to wanting to expand the church, he also wanted to make a tribute to God, the Father of the lights. By using rare materials like gold, he feels that he has honored God by offering him a place of worship. Through constructing the true door, Suger intended to embody God as the true light. The door of Saint-Denis is decorated with forty-two marks of gold symbolizing the glory of God and representing his idea of “the door of paradise.” Suger hoped this door would symbolize an entry not only to a place of worship, but also a door that leads to heaven. Therefore, using gold amplifies the presence of God on earth similar to what was mentioned by Ésiolé. Later in the book Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis and Its Treasures, Suger describes his thoughts on the symbolic importance of gold in the church. In the Old Testament, gold and silver were used to collect the blood of sacred animals and similarly gold vessels should be the means utilized in the church to collect the blood of Christ.[1] When the Abbot Suger died, he left a church “renewed from its very foundations”,[2] filled with treasures which made the St-Denis the most resplendent church in the Western World. [3]

    St. Bernard of Clairvaux does not agree with Suger, stating “What had gold to do in the sanctuary?”.[4] A passage from Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis and Its Treasures explains St. Bernard’s beliefs about ornaments: “This was precisely what the Exordium Magnum Ordinis Cisterciensis had condemned and what St. Bernard had thundered against figural picture or sculpture, except for wooden crucifixes, was tolerated; gems, pearls, gold and silk were forbidden […].”[5] Therefore, St. Bernard believed the church should be kept pure, simple, and free from luxury. He believed churches should be built not as luxurious places, but conceptualized for space and proportions embodying true spirituality.

    1 Panofsky, E. (ed.) Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis and Its Treasures 1946. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1946, p. 16
    2 Panofsky, E. (ed.) Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis and Its Treasures 1946. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1946, p. 14
    3 Panofsky, E. (ed.) Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis and Its Treasures 1946. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1946, p. 15
    4 Panofsky, E. (ed.) Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis and Its Treasures 1946. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1946, p. 15
    5 Panofsky, E. (ed.) Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis and Its Treasures 1946. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1946, p. 14

    October 8, 2012 at 10:01 pm

  4. Amalin

    Both Suger and St. Bernard are the reflection of the time they lived, but an important difference separates them. In a time of religious war, these two influential thinkers of the 12th century debated aesthetics, theology and religion extensively, which extended into architecture and many other areas of culture. Abbot Suger of St.-Denis and St. Bernard of Clairvaux are the spokesmen of two different aesthetics, and by their own brilliance, the creators of new trends.

    As Trebuh our fellow blogger has pointed out, Abbot Suger gave great importance to precious stones and golden ornaments. There are numerous reasons for this, first of which is the “idea that nothing was too beautiful to be consecrated by God […]. Suger was also motivated by a sort of aesthetic emotion or experience which he – almost alone is his generation – tried to describe.” [1] “Nothing, he thought, would be a graver sin of omission than to withhold from the service of God and His saints what He had empowered nature to supply and man to perfect: vessels of gold or precious stone adorned with pearls and gems, […].” [2] “This was precisely what […] St. Bernard had thundered against in the Apologia ad Willelmum Abbatem Sancti Theodorici. No figural painting or sculpture, except for wooden crucifixes, was tolerated; gems, pearls, gold and silk were forbidden […].” [3] He believed that ornamentation was a worldly distraction from a pure faith in God.

    This clash of fundamental religious viewpoints being battled out in the 12th century had wider implication that influenced the direction of architecture. Architecture is a concrete embodiment of ideas – both the ornate and austere aesthetics have been major forces in the Christian mindset and practical expression. “St. Bernard conceived of monasticism as a life of blind obedience and utter self-denial with respect to personal comfort, food and sleep; he himself said to have waked and fasted ultra possibilitatem humanam. Suger, on the other hand, was all for discipline and moderation, but thoroughly against subjection and asceticism” [4] Suger’s work on the abbey church of St.-Denis brought influences from Burgendy and Normandy creating early accounts of gothic architecture whereas St. Bernard’s stern architecture in the Clairvaux Abbey promotes pale stone, simplicity and lack of ornamentation.

    1 Gerson, Paula L. Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: A Symposium – Gaborit-Chopin, Danielle, Suger’s Liturgical Vessels. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986, 283.
    2 Suger, Erwin Panofsky, and Gerda Panofsky-Soergel. Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and its Art Treasures. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1979, 13.
    3 Ibid., 14.
    4 Ibid., 12.

    October 9, 2012 at 11:09 am

  5. labyrinth

    After reading both Suger’s and Bernard’s writings, there seems to be an ulterior motive to the use of gold – as propaganda and advertisement for the church, as opposed to a means of conveying the word of God. Suger emphasizes on his inscription on the doors that one should, “Marvel not at the gold and expense but at the craftsmanship of the work”, and that the “true light” will be achieved through the use of the material [1]. I find it odd how Suger claims that the material and the craftsmanship of the door will lead the viewer to find the true light, rather than reading and understanding the actual story of the passion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ as depicted upon the doors. The emphasis is on the material, and not its content.

    This is made clearer in Bernard’s writings on the methods of the Cluniacs: “Money is scattered about in such a way that it will multiply. It is spent so that it will increase. …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. …There is more admiration for beauty than veneration for sanctity. …What do you think is the purpose of such things? To gain the contrition of penitents or the admiration of spectators?” [2]. His claim reveals the church’s use of a basic form of capitalism, in order to increase profit and attendance. Thus, his writings expose an ulterior motive of Suger’s: that of the propaganda and profiteering of the church, rather than providing a means for parishioners to experience the “true light”.

    [1] Abbot Suger, translated by Erwin Panofsky. Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and its art treasures. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, Second Edition, 1979, p.47.

    [2] St. Bernard de Clairvaux, “Apologia”. Translated by David Burr, History Department, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA. .

    October 9, 2012 at 11:42 am

  6. reckon

    Abbot Suger’s administration, in his book “Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis and Its Art Treasures,” complied to “save, for the memory of posterity, in pen and ink,” that which the “Almighty God had bestowed upon [their] church,” such as the “accumulation of gold, silver, and most precious gems, […] not with any desire for empty glory nor with any claim to the reward of human praise and transitory compensation,” (I) but rather to encourage succeeding administrations to continue their traditions.

    Suger implored that “He Who is the One, the beginning and the ending, Alpha and Omega, might join a good end to a good beginning by a safe middle.”(XXV) I understand this to mean that men hoped to have a safe passage on earth through life by honoring God with the building of a Temple that is deserving of Him. Thus, Abbot Suger “labored for the splendor of the church” and that for this labor “he may obtain a share of Paradise.” (XXVII) It was Suger’s intention that this splendor of gold craftsmanship “should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights, to the True Light where Christ is the true door.” (XXVII) In this sense, Suger believed that to build a temple with gilded doors would allow “the dull mind [to rise] in truth through that which is material and, in seeing this light, [would be] resurrected from its former submersion.” (XXVII) The magnificence of the material allows man to transcend to the magnificence of God.

    Bernard of Clairvaux was the chief spokesperson of a new religious order known as the Cistercians which preached an austere and disciplined monastic life, much the opposite of Suger’s ideals. Bernard, in his writing “Apologia,” condemns Suger’s Cluniac abbeys for their excesses. The Cistercians separate themselves from societal life; Bernard accuses the Cluniacs of using “material ornamentation to rouse devotion in a carnal people, incapable of spiritual things.” (XII) He says that in living among gentiles, the Cluniacs have sunk to their level, and now serve their idols.

    October 9, 2012 at 11:57 am

  7. somer

    Abbot Suger describes the Golden doors of St. Denis as an analogy, he explains the brightness of the doors lead viewers to “the true Light where Christ is the true door”. He justified the expense of the doors as a symbol of godliness, the more beautiful and elaborate the doors, the more closely they relate to the divine. Gold is used in Suger’s opinion to enhance the experience of the church and to express the importance of certain elements of the church. The brighter the doors the better they give a narrative of the “True Light”, Christ, who is the only door to God.
    This opinion is very different from that St. Bernard of Clairvaux as he very clearly opposed the use of such frivolous elements in a holy place. He saw the church as a place that should be modest. He explained his protest, “The very sight of such sumptuous and exquisite baubles is sufficient to inspire men to make offerings, though not to say their prayers. In this way, riches attract riches, and money produces more money. For some unknown reason, the richer a place appears, the more freely do offerings pour in.” St. Bernard’s considered golden ornamentation as a promotional device to impress the people who attended and encourage offerings to the church.
    Both Suger and St. Bernard make strong points about religion and ornamentation. As Suger suggests, having a wow factor of brightness, craftsmanship and expense, can be a way to represent the greatness of god and also draw people to the church. On the other hand, although the extravagant ornamentation attracts people to the church it does not represent the message of God concerning humility and equality.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:57 pm

  8. The position of Clairvaux and Suger are opposed on the subject of ornamentation. I don’t think citing the same passages from their writing a 8th time will make it any clearer: Suger cherishes gilded ornaments and gold as he believes it’s the only way to reach True Light, while Clairvaux advocates for a pure and subtle architecture for the house of God.

    I strongly believe that Clairvaux was onto something much deeper and much more meaningful than Suger, who really is only about the wow-factor. There aim was very different, as Suger built a church and Clairvaux a abbey, yet the distinct purposes of these buildings are telling of what they believe is a good life: marvelling at expensive doors every Sunday or living every day a humble and quiet life.

    Alberto mentioned that images could not convey architecture properly, and I believe that an excellent contemporary example of such an architecture here in Québec is the Abbaye Val Notre-Dame by Pierre Thibault. It is not exactly a Cistercian abbey—it’s a reformed group know as the “Trappistes”— but it definitely is built closer to the principles of Clairvaux than Suger’s.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:11 pm

  9. All previous writers have pointed to fundamental divisions of thinking between the two authors on the subject of gold.

    What Amalin calls “aesthetic emotion” seems to be getting at the idea that gold for Abbot Suger takes us beyond the here and the now. Labyrinth brings up the proselytizing nature of Suger’s use of gold and Reckon notices how the material itself is necessary for any spiritual transcendence. The idea of two doors, the material ones and the “true door,” is discussed by Somer. Gold doors, as opposed to wooden ones, connote a valuable and unchangeable condition and open one up to the thought of a “true door.”

    It’s true, as Sfumato points out, that St. Bernard objects to excess. Bernard’s reason seems to be what he considers the tendency to falsely equate excessive artworks with holiness, where he speaks of stirring “up the devotion of the carnal populace with material adornments, spiritual ones being of no avail.” In another work of his, the Sermones, he suggests that nothing can compare to an inner beauty: “…nor the beauty of gold and luster of precious stones, or any things of this kind, which are all doomed to destruction.” But I think he feels that ornate art, including gilded art, is not evil in itself. It’s his particular religious institution, as Trebuh suggests, that’s the focus of the debate. Ornate works are just not suitable for people who have renounced the world, as Esiolé aptly describes the Cistercians.

    I must visit the Abbaye Val Notre-Dame. I’ve had Trappist bread, cheese, and ale before. They’re sensational. I’ve always found it intriguing that a group that renounces sensuous beauty can produce products of such intense richness.

    October 10, 2012 at 1:15 am

  10. uncleremus89

    “It would be incorrect to describe the first Gothic as the child of Cistercian architecture, even though it is the child of St. Bernard. In criticizing the extravagance of Cluniac art, the Abbot of Clairvaux had pointed out himself that his postulates applied to monastic buildings only.” [1]

    Remember these two people had different roles. Abbot Suger, a man who studied and became close friends with the future king of France, Louis the VI, pursued an ambitious political career. This gave him power in the French capital and religious influence within the realm. The new pope had family ties to the French crown forming along with the king and Suger a trifecta of power and influence. In addition, St-Denis being the patron saint of the king further explains the wealth obtained by the abbey while under the direction of Abbot Suger.
    On the other hand, St-Bernard de Clairvaux was fiercely Augustinian and became a powerful figure in theology and monastic organization. His influence was largely confined to the spiritual realm.
    Considering this their approaches to appropriate religious representation differed strongly based on their target audiences. Suger was dealing with a diocese and the temporal needs of the people living in the capital. This charge permitted, and even encouraged, the material expenses that were used to convey the ephemeral experience of the True Light to the general populace. Bernard de Clairvaux’s main concern was addressing monks and people who had chosen to devote their lives to the contemplation of Christianity and the study of the Bible.

    “To him the life of the Cistercian cloister was ideally an image and foretaste of paradise. […] Bernard sought to prepare his monks, even while in this life, for the mystical perception of divine truth, an ideal of spiritual contemplation in which the world of the senses has no place…” [2]

    Given these considerations, it would be more suitable to disregard the apparent dissonance of ideas described through the works of Abbot Suger and Bernard de Clairvaux. The latter would overlook the expenditures of Suger out of territorial respect for him.
    Although differentiated my their means and methods, these two innovators are reconciled by their ultimate goal in conveying the True Light to their audiences and prove to be complementary to one another.

    [1] Simson, Otto Georg von. The Gothic cathedral : origins of Gothic architecture and the medieval concept of order. Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 57.

    [2] Simson, Otto Georg von. The Gothic cathedral : origins of Gothic architecture and the medieval concept of order. Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 44.

    October 10, 2012 at 6:01 pm