Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Banlieue of St.-Denis

The Chorus of St.-Denis in its Basilica

A detail, Moses Revealing the Tablets of the Law, from the stained glass of Abbot Suger, c. 1145, in the chevet of the royal abbey basilica, now made the cathedral of the diocese.

As a student, of all the wonders of Paris (apart from the Louvre) the one I most wanted to visit was the Basilica of St.-Denis.  Of all the subjects that Erwin Panofsky had brought to life for me, it was the one that had taught me most effectively that there was more to the Middle Ages than Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, more to history than Agincourt in technicolor.
Getting there is not difficult: just take the Métro to the end of the line and exit into a modern banlieue that certainly would appall Abbot Suger.  Outside of the walls of Paris, no longer standing, in the middle ages well out in the country, in the summer of 2000 I found a square with ordinary buildings, with ordinary people shopping (such as the photographer Doisneau loved to photograph), with a small carousel brought in for small children, and at one side of this space the Basilica of St.-Denis which enshrines not only the tombs of the Kings of France but, unless you want to quibble on scholarly details, the creation of the Gothic architecture, including its glass and sculpture, of the Ile de France.  Viollet-le-Duc badly damaged the sculptures of the façade, as the drawings by Montfaucon show, but the twelfth-century choir, the ambulatory, and the apse figure in every serious textbook of the history of western art.
Bibliography on Suger and on the Basilica comes in multi-volumed publications, and this is no place to rehearse it; I'll provide a few titles at the end.

Occasionally, on the public service TV channel, CAS (Classic Arts Showcase), I have seen a 1992 performance by the Chorus of St.-Denis with Jean-Claude Casadesus conducting the Lille Orchestra of the In Paradisum from Gabriel Fauré's Requiem.  It is one of many good performances, but it was recorded with the chorus in the choir of its Basilica.  The photographers have taken the occasion to photograph the famous 12th-century stained glass windows of Abbot Suger behind the choristers (and at the end of the recording to show the praying hands of one of the royal gisants), including CIVITAS IERUSALUM: the City of God of Augustine, the Paradise of Dante.  There is also a pane showing Suger himself, so labeled, holding one of the Tree of Jesse windows, though these are not so relevant to the In Paradisum (Googling St.-Denis brings up Suger, but also many other varied images).  Searching on line yields only the out-of-print (and expensive) recording of this performance, but only VHS; as often, the Fauré is paired with Poulenc's Gloria, and I don't know whether the whole Fauré Requiem is included in full.  What I do know is that it presents, I think, the truest images of what Suger meant and, in making skeletal supports and luminous colored glass replace a solid wall with windows, what his architect created.

Now, whether you like Fauré's work or not, it does shimmer, in ineffable glory, and the chorus, mostly young (but not children),  are both as magically earthly and as holy as the singing angels at the Nativity by Piero della Francesca in the National Gallery in London.  In both cases, they remind me of the pseudo-Areopagite's neo-platonic vision of the divine pervading, unifying the material and the divine.  The St.-Denis choristers have rather plain robes, and their hair is not elaborately dressed for the camera.  Even the photography is not pretentious and is not over-produced.  So, when they sing "Jerusalum, Jerusalem" it rings true.  It is the best photographic record of the chevet and a fine performance of the Requiem, too.

I have looked everywhere for really good images of the glass (the ribbing of the chevet, too, really wants good architectural video, though if you have been there you can think your way around it), in particular the beautiful colors of the glass as when you see light coming through them, but the only good photo I could find that I wasn't sure was copyright is the Moses at the top of this post.  And Abbot Suger would want some time to embrace his basilica and its domain as it is today.  But it does glorify all the history that it has lived through.

Besides the basic histories of western architecture (I like Pevsner and especially Kostof), the essential article is Panofsky's Introduction reprinted in Meaning in the Visual Arts, pp. 108–145.  The present edition of the PB, in print for more than half a century, is U. of Chicago Press.  You might as well use the Wikipedia for databank purposes.

I'd be very grateful if someone knows of a CD copy of the VHS cited.