Abbot Suger: on what was done in his administration


Suger was born in 1081 of a very minor knightly family. He was dedicated to the abbey of St. Denis at the age of nine or ten and came to see himself as its adopted child. Appointed abbot in 1122, he held that position until his death in 1155.
His office was a highly prestigious one. The abbey had been founded in the seventh century by the Frankish king Dagobert in honor of Denis, the patron saint of France, and his legendary companions Rusticus and Eleutherius. By Suger's time it had long been the royal abbey of France. Kings were educated and buried there.
The Book of Suger Abbot of St. Denis on What Was Done During his Administration is one of two works by Suger concerning the abbey church of St. Denis. It was probably begun shortly after the consecration of the choir in 1144 and finished no earlier than the end of 1148.

I.

 In the twenty-third year of our administration, on a certain day when we sat in general chapter conferring with our brethren about common and private matters, these same dear brothers and sons began to beg me vigorously and in love that I should not remain silent about the fruit of our past labors but rather with pen and ink should preserve for future memory the additions which the munificence of almighty God bestowed upon this church during the time of our leadership in the acquisition of new things, the recovery of lost ones, the multiplication of refurbished possessions, the construction of buildings, and the accumulation of gold, silver, precious gems and quality textiles. From this one thing they promised us two in return: Through this memorial we should earn the prayers of succeeding brothers for the salvation of our soul; and through this example we should arouse in them a zealous commitment to the proper maintenance of God's church. We therefore, devoutly assenting to their devout and reasonable requests, without hungering for empty glory or demanding the reward of human praise or impermanent earthly reward, lest after our passing the revenues of the church should be diminished by someone's fraud, lest the abundant additions conferred upon the church by God's munificence during the time of our administration should be quietly lost by unworthy successors, we thought it proper and useful to inform present and future readers of the increase in revenues, construction of buildings and multiplication of treasures in the church of the most blessed martyrs Denis, Rusticus and Eleutherius, a church that tenderly fostered us from mothers breast to old age.

 XXIV. Concerning the Decoration of the Church

 Having thus assigned these increases in the revenue, we turned back to the memorable construction of buildings, so that through this activity thanks might be given to almighty God by us and our successors, and enthusiasm for its continuation and, if necessary, for its completion should be fired by good example. For neither poverty nor opposition by any power is to be feared if one securely makes use of one's own resources through love for the holy martyrs.

 Therefore, by divine inspiration, the first work we did on the church was as follows. Because the walls were old and threatened to weaken in some places, having summoned the best painters we could find from various places, we devoutly had the walls repaired and worthily painted with gold and costly colors. I carried this task out all the more gladly because, even when I was a student, I had wanted to do so if ever I had the opportunity.

 XXV. Concerning the First Addition to the Church

 Even while this was being carried out at great expense, however, because of the inadequacy we often felt on special days such as the feast of the blessed Denis, the fair, and many other times, when the narrowness of the place forced women to run to the altar on the heads of men as on a pavement with great anguish and confusion; for this reason, moved by divine inspiration and encouraged by the council of wise men as well as the prayers of many monks, in order to avoid the displeasure of the holy martyrs I undertook to enlarge and amplify the noble monastic church consecrated by the divine hand, devoutly praying both in our chapter and in church that he who is beginning and end, alpha and omega, should join a good end with a good beginning by way of a sound middle, and that he might not exclude from the building of the temple a bloody man who wholeheartedly desired this more than the treasures of Constantinople. Thus we began with the former main entrance, dismantling a certain addition said to have been built by Charlemagne on a very worthy occasion, because his father, the Emperor Pepin, had ordered that he be buried outside that entrance, face down, for the sins of his father Charles Martel. As is obvious, we exerted ourselves, vehemently enlarging the body of the church, tripling the entrance and doors, and erecting tall, worthy towers.

 XXVII. Concerning the Cast and Gilded Doors

 Having summoned bronze casters and chosen sculptors, we erected the main doors, on which are represented the passion and resurrection or ascension of Christ, with great expense and heavy outlay for their gilding as befits such a noble portico. We also set up new ones on the right, and old ones on the left beneath the mosaic which, contrary to modern custom, we had placed in the tympanum. We also arranged to have the towers and upper crenelations of the front altered with an eye to beauty and, should circumstances require, to utility. We also ordered that, lest it be forgotten, the year of the consecration should be inscribed in copper-gilt letters in this way:

 For the glory of the church which nurtured and raised him,
Suger strove for the glory of the church,
Sharing with you what is yours, oh martyr Denis.
He prays that by your prayers he should become a sharer in Paradise.
The year when it was consecrated was the one thousand, one hundred and fortieth year of the Word.

 XXXI. Concerning the Golden Altar Frontal in the Upper Choir

 Into this panel, which stands before his most sacred body, we estimate that we have put around forty-two marks of gold, a rich abundance of precious gems - hyacinths, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and topazes - and a variety of pearls, more than we ever hoped to find. You would see kings, princes and many outstanding men, imitating us, remove the rings from their fingers and order that the gold, gems and precious pearls of the rings be set in the panel. In the same way archbishops and bishops, depositing the rings of their investiture there for safekeeping, devoutly offered them up to God and his saints. Such a large crowd of gem-dealers flowed in upon us from various kingdoms and nations that we sought to buy no more than they hastened to sell, money being provided by all...

 Because it was proper for us to place the most sacred bodies of our lords in the upper vault as nobly as possible, and one of the side- panels of their most holy sarcophagus had been torn off on some unknown occasion, we put aside fifteen marks of gold and took pains to have the rear side and the whole outside container, above and below, gilded with about forty ounces. Moreover, we had the receptacles which contain the holy bodies covered with copper-gilt panels and polished stone attached over the stone vaults, with continuous gates which would keep unruly crowds at a distance yet allow distinguished persons to view these receptacles with great devotion and a flood of tears.

 XXXIII.

 Because of our reverence for sacred relics, we also took up the task of renovating the altar which, according to the testimony of the ancients, was called "the Holy One" (For so King Louis, son of Philip, who was brought up here, had heard it called by the older people of the place from his early childhood, as he used to say.) It was apparently the worse for wear due to age, lack of faithful care, and frequent movement in order to decorate it, since it is arranged differently for different feasts, the more distinguished ones receiving more distinguished decoration.

 The holy porphyry stone on top of the altar, appropriate both qualitatively by its color and quantitatively by its size, was set in a hollow frame of wood covered with gold. This frame was very damaged by the passage of time. The front part of the frame was believed to contain, through cunning workmanship, an arm of St. James the Apostle, and a document inside said as much through an opening of the clearest crystal. Another document within announced that in the right-hand part was hidden an arm of the protomartyr Stephen, while the left-hand part contained an arm of St. Vincent the Levite and Martyr. For some time desiring to be fortified with the protection of such great and holy relics, I had longed ardently to see them and kiss them if I had not feared to displease God. Therefore, taking courage from my devotion and believing in the truth of the ancient testimony, we chose a date and selected the manner in which the holy relics were to be examined.


Translation by David Burr [olivi@mail.vt.edu]. See his home page. In The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, maintained by Paul Halsall. 
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