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Discuss the relationship of scholastic thinking in Gothic architecture and use as an example – The Abbey of St Denis. Illustrate your essay with specific examples.

Abbot Suger's completed projects to replace the east and west ends of the Abbey church of Saint-Denis situated some ten kilometres north of central Paris are often taken as the starting points for any discussion of the beginnings of the development and spread of the Gothic style of architecture. While accepting that not every Gothic feature of Suger's campaign at St-Denis is novel, it is not the place of this essay to fully interrogate this position, nor to recount and assess the various precursors that have been posited as architectural influences, but rather to investigate the relationship between the development of the new Gothic style and contemporary scholastic thinking. This will be achieved in part through an analysis of the way that the art historian Erwin Panofsky related the two in the 1950s, and then, in the light of this analysis, by examining how this might specifically concern the initial phase of rebuilding undertaken by Suger between c.1135 and 1144. Important to this discussion will be an examination of the abbot's use of sources including the writings of the person known as the Pseudo-Areopagite.

Born in 1081, Suger was abbot at St-Denis from 1122 until his death in 1151, and had long wanted to improve the dilapidated state of the abbey. He had already reformed the administration of the monastery and greatly improved its finances (for example through royal donation), which this enabled him to undertake the building of new halls, barns and churches on the abbey's estates. Saint-Denis had been given monastic standing by King Dagobert I and his son Clovis II, was one of the resting places of French monarchs in the Île-de-France, and according to tradition the original dedication of the church in 775 (attended by Charlemagne) had also been blessed by Christ, so the building had both royal and divine associations by the twelfth century. A place of pilgrimage, it housed the tomb of Saint Denis, the patron saint and apostle of France, as well as those of his companion saints, but by Suger's day it had fallen into some disrepair, while the single entrance caused access problems for the crowds of worshipers who would sometimes gather outside. There were strong attachments to the existing structure, but increasing revenues provided him with the means to make needed alterations to the abbey church, while still conforming to both the forms and dimensions of the existing Carolingian church.

This synthetic approach to building may have been what made it appealing as a style to be followed. Wilson suggests that the early development of Gothic architecture was part of a move to replace obsolete churches in the Île-de-France driven by the 'increasingly effective exercise of royal power'. However, while St-Denis was certainly a pre-eminent royal abbey, the fact that many high-ranking Church official attended the consecration of Suger's new choir in June 1144, as listed in his De Consecratione, may also have played an important role in their choice of style, when they returned home to consider rebuilding their own churches. Whatever the reason, no church was built in the Île-de-France in the century after St-Denis in anything but Gothic, meaning that any scholastic influences on its development there could have been continued elsewhere.

Although the extent to which at least one mason may (or may not) have worked on both the façade and the choir is still debated, what is not in doubt is the presence of Suger as patron and driving force behind the changes at both the west and east ends of the abbey church. The new Gothic style required a conceptual breakthrough in structural engineering, yet it must come about as the result of a mason trying to meet the challenging demands of his patron. There seems no reason therefore to suppose that St-Denis's Gothic architecture does not derive, at least in part, from the thinking of abbot Suger, even though its technical reconsiderations were almost certainly beyond his own capabilities. Gerson has suggested that by analysing Suger's iconographical arrangement for the central portal of the west front of St-Denis, and by treating it as a work of art in its own right, that it is possible to gain some insight into how he organised and structured his ideas and images. This she has attempted, making a compelling argument for Suger as a complex thinker whose programmes display some evidence of what we might understand as being derived through scholastic processes. By Panofsky's criteria, Suger certainly presided over programmes that sought clarity through classical, scriptural and philosophical allusion, achieving it partly by relating different forms to function while maintaining a regular and unified style. Furthermore, the way that the abbot synthesised his programmes from a number of sources, including the writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius, and arranged them with such logic and clarity, would suggest that his own thought processes were influenced on some level by scholastic thinking. Given St-Denis's influential role on the spread of Early Gothic architecture, therefore, it seems not unreasonable to suggest that there is a direct, though diffuse, link between scholastic thinking and Early Gothic.

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