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If you are interested in Gothic architecture and have been fortunate enough to be able to visit the northern outskirts of Paris where the grand St Denis basilica resides, you'll understand why this building has held such interest for both those who study the gothic architectural form and also those who simply admire the beauty and powerful of the style. St Denis looks a little old and, perhaps, decrepit, from a cursory front (western façade) view, but once one steps through the portal with the Seven Liberal Arts above and proceeds into the nave, the amazing beauty and emotionally powerful impact of the building becomes apparent. Go further eastward into the building to the choir and ambulatory, and you find yourself in a glass kaleidoscope of color and light which is matched perhaps nowhere except on the second floor of the Ste Chapelle in Paris. It's an experience not easily described in words, but one that countless of visitors and architectural historians have attempted with varying success. This 12th century Gothic masterpiece is simply one of the most stunning of a collection that already contains a star-studded list of entries (including Reims Cathedral, Amiens Cathedral, Notre Dame Cathedral, Ste Chapelle in Paris, and many others). If you are visiting in Paris, note, too, that reaching St. Denis is easy: you simply hop on the Metro line 13 and take north all the way to its second-to-last stop (station Basilique St Denis), walk two blocks, and you're there.
But there's something that the casual visitor might not be able to know, and that is that the St. Denis basilica is actually one of the starting points of what was later to become known as "Gothic" architecture. In the 12th century, the abbot there, Suger, wanted to rebuild part of the existing structure and bathe it in intense colored light, making the inside like a massive reliquary, and having the sun's movement keeping the inside in a constant state of illuminated change. Suger had a number of requirements for such a reconstruction effort. The stained glass windows had to be large, had to be separated by as little space as possible, the ceilings had to be high, and a general sense of openness had to be present. This was all aimed at the east-most end of the building (the choir, apse, and ambulatory) but the requirements were enough that a new style had to almost be organically developed to support it. The end result was in what we now call the "Gothic" style, which distinguishes itself via three architectural forms: ribbed vaulting, flying buttresses, and pointed arches. All of these mechanisms had been previously and/or simultaneously used in other places (Sens Cathedral, for example, was being constructed at roughly the same time, and the Notre Dame of Paris was perhaps the first to employ flying buttresses), but used as a unifying concept and pulled together for effect, Suger's St Denis is sometimes heralded (not without controversy or detractors) as a "birth place" and archetypical form that was later copied all over France, and eventually, Europe.
Which explains this book. Suger's kept meticulous writings on this 12th century project, and because of its important as both an architectural and artistic expression, his writings play a key role in the history of both. Panofsky, an American scholar who helped re-introduce medieval studies to American academia, took time in the early 1900's to meticulously translate these works, and his translations are considered some of the most important in the entire field of art history. Panofsky, like many academics, promoted a number of views which have not always been sustained over years of subsequent scholarly work, but have without question pushed the subject forward in a way that forever changed how academia would look at these things. This book contains the most updated and corrected version of his landmark translation work, updated in the 1960's with more recent scholarship finds and a variety of technical edits, and is therefore of great importance to anyone studying in the field. There are no color photos, few black and white photos (and are not to today's standards) and even less sketch drawings, but that is not the purpose of this book. If, however, you want to read what Suger himself said about the building of the choir of St Denis, this is the place to find it. Five stars.
Make sure you go to visit the structure (Paris, Metro line 13, station "Basilique de St-Denis", second to the last station on the north end of the line) if you have any chance at all to do so. And, if you wish to see a great drama that has a dramatic point of inclusion of Suger and St Denis' construction, get The Pillars of the Earth [Blu-ray] if you have a Blu-Ray player. It's made up drama, but if you want to get a feel for a medieval cathedral building project, as well as St. Denis' role in it, it's a great drama. For a more direct (and also recent) documentary on the subject by PBS, I highly recommend Nova: Building the Great Cathedrals.
Compare with ...
Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism
Medieval Architecture, Medieval Learning: Builders and Masters in the Age of Romanesque and Gothic
Artistic Change at St-Denis: Abbot Suger's Program and the Early Twelfth-Century Controversy over Art (Princeton Essays on the Arts)