BMCR 2004.12.16

Suger von Saint-Denis. Untersuchungen zu seinen Schriften Ordinatio – De consecratione – De administratione. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, 200

, Suger von Saint-Denis : Untersuchungen zu seinen Schriften Ordinatio, De consecratione, De administratione. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 200. München-Leipzig: K.G. Saur, 2004. 266 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3598778120. €85.00.

This well-researched doctoral dissertation takes a stance in the scholarly debates concerning the relationship between the writings of Suger of Saint-Denis and the abbot’s building programme. Since the publications of Erwin Panofsky, Hans Sedlmayr and Otto von Simson between the 1940s and 1970s, Suger has been presented as the philosophically inspired inventor of gothic church architecture. More in particular, it has been postulated that in his works, especially the Ordinatio, the De consecratione and the De administratione, Suger reached back deliberately to the writings of (pseudo-)Dionysius the Areopagite to develop a constructive hierarchical light metaphysics for architectural purposes.

Over the years, various scholars have taken issue with this dominant representation. In his 1987 article ‘Panofsky, Suger and St. Denis’, published in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (no. 50, pp. 1-17), P. Kidson already challenged the idea that Suger would have made a systematic usage of the (pseudo-) Dionysian corpus for his own architectural programme. Subsequently, A. Speer and J. van der Meulen have argued that Suger was not aiming for a new architectural conceptual framework but tried to build on existing traditions concerning the liturgical and cultic functions of church buildings. In 1995, the architectural historian M. Kramp came to the conclusion that the gothic building programme at Saint-Denis was, more than anything else, an attempt to support the claims to leadership of the French Capetian dynasty, by enlisting and shaping the metaphysical support of Dionysius the saint (rather than the philosopher), whose remains allegedly were kept at the royal abbey of Saint-Denis.

Susanne Linscheid-Burdich adds her own voice to this debate. Not unlike Kramp, she argues that Suger did not try to explain and legitimise his building programme with the philosophical and theological concepts of Dionysius the Areopagite. Instead, his writings aimed at propagating St. Dionysius as the patron of the French nation under Capetian rule, and highlighted the importance of the cloister of Saint-Denis, where Dionysius would have been buried. Whereas Kramp focused in his work on Suger’s imaginary representations, Linscheid-Burdich intends to subject Suger’s writings to renewed scrutiny, and thus to untangle his use of the (pseudo-) Dionysian corpus in relation to his authorial intentions.

This is the starting point for a detailed re-reading of Suger’s Ordinatio, his De consecratione and his De administratione from nine different angles, dealt with in a corresponding number of chapters. Linscheid-Burdich is able to establish Suger’s use of the De caelesti hierarchia, the abbot’s depiction of the saint Dionysius, and the relative weight of the saint in relation to other patrons of the French royal dynasty (such as St. Martin, St. Remigius and St. Martialis). She also unravels Suger’s use of additional sources that underscore his aesthetic views (such as the Historia compostellana, the rule of Benedict, the Bible, biblical commentaries, and monastic literature), and points out how Suger tried to connect the abbey to the aims of the French royal dynasty and defended his building programme against the criticism of contemporaries.

In all, Linscheid-Burdich shows that Suger did have some distinct views on building and the functions of religious art but did not privilege the philosophical doctrines of Dionysius the Areopagite to develop these ideas. Rather, he reaches back to established exegetical traditions, particularly with regard to passages in the Old Testament (such as Sap. 11: 21), which deal with the principles of Divine order as they are made visible in the created world by the ultimate sapiens architectus, and can provide allegorical and anagogical justifications both for the shape and adornment of church buildings and for the choice of costly materials. This is fully in line with explanatory models provided in older monastic works, such as Caesarius of Arles’ Sermones and the De ecclesiasticis officiis (Isidore of Seville).

Linscheid-Burdich’s readings are convincing and constitute an important contribution to the scholarly debate on the nature of Suger’s writings, the sources of inspiration for his building programme and its underlying aesthetics. She refutes the views of Panofsky and challenges the still popular vision of Otto von Simson, whose classic and frequently reprinted study The Gothic Cathedral (1956) continues to fuel the idea that Suger’s treatises constitute a guide for representing the hierarchical philosophical doctrines of Dionysius the Areopagite through spatial and architectonic means. Linscheid-Burdich shows that these interpretations can no longer be supported. It is to be hoped that her book finds an English translation, so that her refutation becomes accessible to the monolingual Anglo-American scholarly world.