The Church of Saint-Denis and Gothic Architecture
A Case Study

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The following presentation, given on 8 May 2019, accompanies my undergraduate thesis in the History & Theory of Architecture. The paper was written under the direction of Columbia faculty advisers Stephen Murray and Barry Bergdoll in the art history department. This work is a continuation of my computer animations and visualizations of Amiens Cathedral for Professor Murray, published here.

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The full thesis is available here to read online. Scroll down for powerpoint presentation and model.
The abstract is copied below:

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Around the year 1140 CE, a new style of architecture and way of thinking about how to construct buildings developed in Northern France. This way of building soon spread across Europe, seeding cathedrals, monasteries, abbeys, and churches wherever masons traveled. Centuries later – long after masons ceased building in this style – Renaissance architectural theorists began calling this style the “Gothic.”

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The one church traditionally associated with this 1140s stylistic shift from the earlier Romanesque style to the newer Gothic style is a small building just north of Paris: the Abbey Church of S-Denis. However, although the popular narrative of architectural history assumes this building to be the world’s first Gothic building, little structural evidence to this effect survives. This thesis follows two strains of inquiry: 1) why this church is deeply associated with the origins of Gothic and 2) how surviving fragments of the 1140s S-Denis fail to support claims of the structure’s primacy.

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Why does this matter? S-Denis reveals a tendency to tell history – particularly architectural history – in terms of individual structures when, in fact, the origins of the Gothic style might be more complex. By abandoning a Paris and S-Denis centric origins story, we might be able to better appreciate the diverse array of local sources from which medieval masons found inspiration to build.

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Computer Model

Central to the argument that the Gothic style originated at S-Denis is a misunderstanding and debate about the church’s original appearance. Very little survives of the church that is claimed to have inspired the Gothic style. The computer model below illustrates architectural fabric original to the 1100s in red and later additions in white. This should lead us to question: Why and how did historians assert this structure as the first on the basis of relatively limited physical evidence?

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Abbey Church of Saint-Denis by Myles Zhang on Sketchfab

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Strangely enough, despite the widely accepted fact that S-Denis’ architecture was significantly rebuilt, numerous scholarly and non-scholarly sources continue to assume this church to be the first. Copied below is a quote from S-Denis’ official website:

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The birth of Gothic art. The church, designed by Abbot Suger, kings’ advisor from 1135 to 1144, was completed in the 13th century during the reign of Saint Louis. A major work of Gothic art, this church was the first to place a great importance on light, a symbol of divinity, in religious architecture.

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Or this quote from medievalist Dieter Kimpel:

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Suger, abbot of the most important of all the royal abbeys, that of Saint-Denis, and sponsor of the western part and the sanctuary of the abbey church, works considered rightly as a milestone in the history of the birth of Gothic architecture, left us a detailed account of his activity as abbot.

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This misconception pervades scholarly and popular sources alike, including this church’s Wikipedia entry:

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The building is of singular importance historically and architecturally as its choir, completed in 1144, shows the first use of all of the elements of Gothic architecture.

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An appendix of selected sources claiming S-Denis to be the first accompany pages 46-48 of the written thesis.

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Slide Deck

Embedded below are the slides from this presentation.

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Anyone is welcome to reuse, re-quote, or borrow the text, photos, animations, and drawings contained in this thesis for non-commercial purposes and with attribution to the author, in accordance with this creative commons license.

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