St. Denis and Notre Dame

When the great minds of the so-called ‘Renaissance’ wanted to denigrate the art, architecture, and bookhands of the previous generation(s), they chose the word ‘Gothic’, as opposed to their re-birth of alleged Graeco-Roman ‘humanism’ in architecture, handwriting, and the visual arts.

In what follows, do take a look at the hyperlinks, for they take you to images on my Flickr photostream; the Notre Dame photos are not up yet, though! I am having trouble with file sizes and WordPress, soo….

I have recently visited two Gothic masterpieces here in Paris, Basilique St. Denis and Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris (the world-famous cathedral). Neither is worth denigrating (nor is the mindblowing Duomo of Milan).

The Basilique St Denis is north of the centre of Paris, in one of the <em>banlieux</em> where you feel like you’re in a mélange of French North Africa and French Subsahara with European architecture everywhere. In the Middle Ages, this was not Paris. The community would have arisen up here around the basilica and monastery.

St. Denis was, as tradition has it, founded by St. Denis, third-century bishop of Lutetia (Paris) who was beheaded on Monmartre (Mons Martyrorum) with two companions. Having been beheaded, he picked up his head and walked with it to where he wished himself to be buried. That was up in St. Denis. So they buried him in what would become his basilica’s crypt.

True story, if Hincmar of Reims (806-882) has anything to say about it.

St. Denis was conflated with another person of the same name, (Pseudo)Dionysius the Areopagite, writer of early sixth-century pseudepigrapha of a very mystical nature worth a read or two. It’s about reaching the uncreated Light and all that jazz.

So in the 12th century, Abbot Suger of the monastery at St. Denis decided to make a cathedral of light in honour of St. Denis, theologian of the light of God.

He (re?)built the chevet, the entry point of the church before you reach the narthex as well as a double ambulatory. An ambulatory is a place for walking behind the apse of a church (an apse is the round bit that sticks out like a bump at the back, where the high altar is in traditionally-arranged churches), and a double ambulatory has an extra arcade full of altars for the celebration of private masses.

This space is full of light, because a pointed Gothic arch can span a very wide distance, leaving room for naught but coloured glass.

Later, Suger’s successors rebuilt the Carolingian and Romanesque portions in the mid-twelfth century. This includes the high and lofty nave that reaches in a light, airy manner into the reaches of the heavens above, as well as the addition of transepts. If you imagine a mediaeval cathedral as a cross, transepts are the arms of the cross. Using the weightlessness of Gothic architecture, the transepts include very beautiful rose windows.

St. Denis basically blew my mind, architecturally. It is light and airy and is ribbed with magnificence.

Two nights ago, while Jennie was visiting, we turned up in Notre Dame during one of the Masses for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We thus had the opportunity to visit the cathedral and experience Gothic architecture the way it was meant to be experienced — with choir and priests and bishops chanting out prayers and scripture readings and alleluias:

The nave was full, so I am unable to compare the height and grandeur of Notre Dame with the height and grandeur of St Denis. But here as well we have the high, fluted columns stretching to pointed arches and walls made of stained glass. We have rose windows.

And we have the chapels of a double ambulatory.

These chapels at Notre Dame are interesting. I do not know whether the painting is original, but I do not doubt that they represent an image of how such places were intended to look — full of colour and vibrance, dazzling the eye with the wonder of God’s good creation.

When I visit these large, airy Gothic places, I cannot side with anyone who would think poorly of them. They are magnificent, whether Notre Dame, St Denis, York Minster, Rosslyn Chapel, the Milanese Duomo!

I recommend a visit.

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One thought on “St. Denis and Notre Dame

  1. Pingback: The 12th century | The Wordhoard

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