Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part XV

Abbot Suger of St. Denis

     The most famous exponent of architectural Pythagoreanism—what might also be called, with equal appositeness, musical architecture or architectural music—is the Abbot Suger of St. Denis, who designed and supervised the construction of the great abbey church just north of Paris that is deemed by art historians to have been the first purely Gothic structure in Europe.   To our great fortune, Suger set down the metaphysical principles according to which St. Denis was to be built and appreciated in a little booklet that has been the subject of study by such eminent scholars as Erwin Panofsky (vid. hisAbbot Suger and St. Denis).

Throughout his treatise, one is struck consistently by the architect Suger’s overriding preoccupation with music, and its potency as an image by which the mind can be uplifted to the visio dei.  It begins:

The admirable power of one unique and supreme Reason equalizes by proper composition the disparity between things human and divine; and what seems mutually to conflict by inferiority of origin or contrariety of nature is conjoined by the single, delightful concordance of one superior, well-tempered harmony.

As Augustine had explained in a passage quoted previously, the diversity and contrariety of nature, as observed by the physical senses, occults, and at the same time, reveals a single universal concordance or harmony:  the One who transcends and yet unites the many.

Suger’s language is once again self-consciously musical— like that of the Platonists of Chartres who,not coincidentally, were teaching and writing at the precisely the time in which St. Denis and the other early Gothic Cathedrals were rising from their foundations.  Like them, too, Suger conceives of the universe as an edifice constructed according to the rational laws of musical consonance; and he understands God’s universally harmonious Reason as the archetype of the building he is about to erect.

Then Suger modulates, with remarkable ease, from the language of architecture to that of soteriology:

Those who seek to be glorified by a participation in this supreme and eternal Reason…strive continuously to accord the similar with the dissimilar and to render justice between conflicting things.  With the aid of charity they draw from the source of eternal Reason the means by which they may withstand internal strife and inner sedition:  preferring the spiritual to the corporeal and the eternal to the perishable.  They set aside the vexations and grievous anxieties caused by sensuality and the exterior senses; emancipating themselves from their oppression and focusing the undivided vision of their minds upon the hope of eternal reward, they seek jealously only that which is enduring.  They forget carnal desires rapt in the admiration of other sights; and they rejoice to be united one day, through the merit of a glorious consciousness, to supreme Reason and everlasting bliss.

If the reader may now be growing tired of encountering one expression after another of mystical yearning, let him rest assured that it is that yearning (along with the spiritual practice through which it is canalized and satisfied) that directs and is the interpretive key to practically everything in pre-modern art and thought.

If we look at this passage closely, it becomes unmistakable that, for Suger, promoting the mystic union through the inmerging of the human with the Eternal Reason is the express goal and purpose of his design.  In placing this meditation at the beginning of his treatise on the building of St. Denis, Suger emphasizes the significance of the architectural harmony of his church as an analogy to the harmony of the cosmos and the soul, of both of which it is a reflection and symbol.

Properly understood, the musical principles of Suger’s Gothic building are intended to lead the rational mind to the contemplation of the Eternal Reason who is the supreme composer and architect of the music of the cosmos.  As a microcosm, the human mind must strive continuously, Suger says, to internalize that cosmic music:  to harmonize or “render justice” to dissimilar or conflicting things, in emulation of the Creator who has done the same in the harmonious composition of the world.

What are these dissimilar and conflicting things?  Suger describes them as things of “contrariety of nature and origin”:  they are, that is, the ontological opposites as anciently defined by Socrates and Paul(the human and divine, created and uncreated, the temporal and eternal, the visible and invisible), which must be conjoined and united.

Yet Suger admonishes us to “prefer the spiritual to the corporeal and the eternal to the perishable”  How, then, does one “harmonize” these obviously unequal ontological and moral opposites?

The traditional way is to conceive the “temporal things that are seen” as symbols and images of the “invisible things of God” (in Paul’s formulation); and this is certainly how Suger enjoins us to understand his own building.  This requires the exercise of reason, which in turn requires the mortification of the senses, which otherwise, as Socrates explains in the Phaedo, would be apt to take the mere (visible)symbolum for the reality it symbolizes.

Finally, there are the interior, psychic oppositions–the passions and carnal desires that cause “internal strife and inner sedition”.  These cleavages, says Suger, can be healed by charity as it is drawn from its source in Eternal Reason (the traditional Physician of Souls).  This is the rational Love that draws the creation back into the Creator, and, immanent in the human soul, disposes it too in justice, order, and harmony.

We are returned, then, to the subject of the music in the “little world of man”, as Clement had anciently described it, and about which there is rather more to say.