Stained Glass Windows from the Abbey Church of St. Denis
St. Vincent’s metaphor of the body makes true progress a matter of integrity, rather than of slowness. During the greatest eras of Christian art, tradition grew and developed with astonishing rapidity. The thriving that followed the Invention of the Holy Cross might be considered the toddlerhood of Christian art; the era of the early Gothic might be considered its adolescence.
Here again, relics of Our Lord’s Passion were the catalyst. Annual fairs held in honor of relics housed at the Abbey of St. Denis, near Paris, were so popular by 1137 that Suger, the abbot, noted:
The crowded multitude offered so much resistance to those who strove to flock in to worship and kiss the holy relics, the Nail and Crown of the Lord, that no one among the countless thousands of people because of their very density could move a foot; that no one, because of their very congestion, could do anything but stand like a marble statue, stay benumbed or, as a last resort, scream.... Moreover the brethren who were showing the tokens of the Passion of Our Lord to the visitors had to yield to their anger and rioting and many a time, having no place to turn, escaped with the relics through the windows.Abbot Suger resolved to enlarge and to rebuild substantially the abbey church; his artistic and architectural project proved epochal. Here, cross-ribbed vaults, pointed arches and flying buttresses were first combined in a new kind of architecture, the framework upon which the arts of monumental sculpture and stained glass climbed and flourished. In the windows of the abbey church, the theology of light expounded by the author of The Celestial Hierarchy, called Dionysius, was given sensible form.
The great crucifix of St. Denis stood more than thirty feet tall in the new abbey church; its pedestal was adorned with figures of the four Evangelists, its pillar with enamel panels illustrating events in the life of Jesus Christ and their prefigurements in the Old Testament, its cross with gemstone cabochons, large pearls and a corpus worked in gold.
The art here begun inspired the great cathedrals of Sens, Chartres, Laon, Paris, Bourges, Rheims and Amiens. It spread beyond France, throughout Catholic Europe. This art is as exact and encyclopedic as medieval theology. A Gothic cathedral is a Summa Iconographica, a codification and perfection of ancient tradition.
In the thirteenth century appeared its finest specimens of architecture, sculpture and stained glass. Because I specialize in small, two-dimensional works of art, I more often look to the following two centuries, in which the arts of manuscript illumination, panel painting, tapestry and printmaking culminated. It is in these later expressions of Gothic that I most often seek inspiration.
Suger of St. Denis, On the Abbey Church of St. Denis and its Art Treasures, translated by Erwin Panofsky, (Princeton University Press, 1979).