Fragments of Light

Animating a Living Theology​, Part Four

The copper-gilt inscription on the doors to the Abbey church of St. Denis reads:
Whoever thou art, if thou seekest to extol the glory of these doors,
Marvel not at the gold and the expense but at the craftsmanship of the work.
Bright is the noble work; but, being nobly bright, the work
Should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights,
To the True Light where Christ is the true door.
In what manner it be inherent in this world the golden door defines:
The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material
And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.
—the Abbot Suger, quoted by Alejandro Garcia-Rivera in ​A Wounded Innocence: Sketches for a Theology of Art


A third example sited by Alejandro Garcia-Rivera in his exploration of the relation between works of art and theology are the medieval stained glass windows of the Abbey church of St. Denis in France. Commissioned by the Abbot Suger, these windows present the visiting pilgrim with an experience of beauty intended as a “bridge” to the world-to-come.​ Garcia-Rivera describes the experience in this way: “Indeed, when the pilgrim entered the Abbey of St-Denis the first impression most probably was one of a deep blue luminosity bathing the interior space of the cathedral. This deep blue luminosity was due to the materia saphirorum, that is sapphire-glass, present in the stained-glass windows. Although stained-glass windows existed in the Romanesque churches before Suger’s Gothic reformation, Suger innovated the generous use of this sapphire-glass in his windows. The Anagogical Window, for example, is an example of this generosity.”

“As such, Suger’s stained-glass windows gave a deep blue luminosity to the interior space of the churches on which they were placed. Although many commentators emphasize the Gothic “gloom” of such deep blue luminosity, they fail to appreciate not only the theological dimension attempted by this “gloom” but also its artistic aim. One of the artistic aims of medieval Christian art was expressiveness. When the artist is dealing with sculpture, engravings, or paintings. expression is done through greater animation in the depiction of figures. But how does the artist bring expressiveness to light? Light, after all, does not have the materiality that sculpture or paintings have. Medieval artists discovered the expressiveness of light in its color. They used color to ‘animate’ and make more expressive the light shining into the cathedral. This artistic insight ought to give a clue to the theological dimension of Suger’s Gothic windows.”

“Not “gloom” but “twilight,” is the aesthetic aim of that deep blue luminosity. “Twilight” blue refers to that region where earth meets the heavens. As such, the deep blue luminosity from the windows signifies a special vantage place in order to see the world and ourselves in a very special way. This vantage place evokes a kind of seeing that is not corporeal vision that can only see the material things of this world. Neither does this kind of vision involve “intellectual vision” for it does not pretend to be the vision given only in the final Resurrection.”

“Rather, it is the vision for those of us that find our lives somewhere between the woundedness of this world and the wholesome vision of the next.”

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