Abbot Suger, On What Was Done In His Administration (De administratione), 1144–1148
In the later 1140s, Abbot Suger of the Royal Abbey of Saint Denis, outside Paris, wrote an account of his extensive project to rebuild and redecorate his abbey church. Suger’s church, and particularly the upper choir, which he describes here, was innovative for its Gothic style vaulting, and his text is one of the most extensive accounts of such a building program to survive from the period.
XXVIII. Concerning the Enlargement of the Upper Choir
In the same year, cheered by so holy and auspicious a work, we hurried to begin on the upper part of the chamber of divine atonement, in which the perpetual and frequent victim of our redemption should be sacrificed in secret without disturbance by the crowds. And as can be found in the treatise on the consecration of this upper part, we, along with our brothers and fellow servants, were mercifully enabled to bring such a glorious and famous work to a favorable conclusion, God having aided us and given success to us and our endeavors. We were all the more indebted to God and the holy martyrs inasmuch as he, by long postponement, had reserved the task for our age and labor. "For who am I, and what is my father's house" (I Kings 18:18) that I should have presumed to begin or hoped to complete such a noble, pleasing edifice unless, relying upon the aid of divine mercy and of the holy martyrs, I applied myself completely, mind and body, to the enterprise? Yet he who gave the will also provided the power, and because the good work was present in the will, it came to perfection with God's help.
That the divine hand which accomplished such things protected this glorious work is shown by the fact that it allowed the entire magnificent edifice, from the crypt below to the summit of the vaults above, varied by the division of numerous arches and columns, and even the roof, to be completed in three years and three months. Thus the inscription of the earlier consecration, with only one word added, would include the year of completion of this building: The year when it was consecrated was the one thousand, one hundred, forty and fourth year of the Word.
To these verses of the inscription we decided to add the following:
When the new rear part is joined to that in front,
The church shines, brightened in its middle.
For bright is that which is brightly coupled with the bright
And which the new light pervades,
Bright is the noble work Enlarged in our time
I, who was Suger, having been leader
While it was accomplished.
Eager, therefore, to follow up on my successes, since I desired nothing under heaven except to pursue the honor of mother church - which had suckled the babe with maternal affection, supported the stumbling youth, powerfully strengthened the mature man, and solemnly placed him among the leaders of church and kingdom - we applied ourselves to completion of the work and plunged into the task of raising the transept wings of the church to correspond with the earlier and later parts which would be joined together by them.
Heidi Catherine Gearhart is Assistant Professor of Art History at George Mason University. Gearhart specializes in the art of Medieval Europe. Her research focuses on sacred arts and manuscripts, artists, and medieval art theory, and she is especially interested in issues of memory, craft, and manufacture.