Campbell Corner Language Exchange

The Arca Foederis at the Abbey of Saint-Denis

by Niki Clements

                                                                                                  Figure 1

The Abbey of Saint-Denis is a historical anomaly in its espousal of many masks polarizing the relation between Church and State: from its claim to being the elected resting place of the third century martyr Dionysius, the 'Apostle to Gaul' who reputedly carried his own head to the current site of Saint-Denis after he was decapitated in Paris, to standing as symbol for secular royalty as the resting place of all but three Frankish monarchs until the French Revolution in 1789. Despite its varied historical importance, one of the most exciting times at Saint-Denis occurred under the administration of Abbot Suger, from 1122-1151. The Abbey underwent significant reconstruction and expansion during this period, through which the Gothic art style found its first full expression. While the magnificent delights created in the Church Abbey of Saint-Denis are innumerable, one of Suger's most striking innovations was the incorporation of stained glass windows into the structure, which Louis Grodecki attests are "the first known examples of such compositions in the field of stained glass; if earlier examples exist, we lack documented evidence."1 In De Administratione--his account of the rebuilding of the Abbey--Suger introduces the "splendid variety of new windows" made by the "exquisite hands of many masters from different regions," emphasizing the richly varied backgrounds and skills of the artisans who worked at the twelfth century reconstruction and expansion of Saint-Denis. One set of windows, termed the 'anagogical windows' by Erwin Panofsky, is particularly extraordinary by virtue of the complex iconographic program and expository verse inscriptions of the five constitutive roundels. While only one of the roundels remains today almost completely unaltered, in De Administratione, Suger provides the original verse inscriptions for four of the roundels, and states that the message of the stained glass windows is "urging us onward from the material to the immaterial".

In his extensive study of the stained glass windows at Saint-Denis, Louis Grodecki concludes his analysis of the sole authentic roundel of the anagogical windows, known as the Arca Foederis--the chest of the covenant--with a moment of humbled deference to the mysteries of this roundel. As he claims that an entire volume could be dedicated to an analysis of this enigmatic work made between 1140 and 1144, this study will accept his implicit invitation to go beyond both his interpretations of the iconographic program of the Arca roundel, and those of his illustrious predecessors, Émile Mâle and Erwin Panofsky. While speculative analysis will not lead to a clear-cut empirical 'truth', the goal of this study is to distill an alternate, integral insight into the Arca roundel and its relation to the Abbey as a compositional whole, as conceived of by Suger, its orchestrator.


Plastic Analysis

At first glance, the iconographic program of the Arca roundel (fig.1) may seem simplistic, perhaps even naive. Upon a background of sapphire blue glass, the four winged figures representing the Evangelists flank a gold tinged chest on golden wheels, while God the Father stands behind Christ crucified on a cross which is anchored by the gold chest. All six figures are crowned with halos: gold ones for the Father and Son, and red ones for the four Evangelists who each carry the gospel-book they respectively authored. The relative simplicity of the image is, however, most misleading. Grodecki articulates the mysterious undercurrent of the roundel as "a sort of sacred hieroglyph where each element gains prominence by virtue of its isolation."

While the dark blue glass emphasizes the unsettling isolation of each figure, the Evangelists' lines of vision towards the Father, Son, and chest disclose this triad as the center of action. The apparently static nature of the figures is likewise deceiving. While motion is not portrayed in any direct way, the winged Evangelists seem to be hovering as their wings beat in an almost resistance free atmosphere. The central triadic figural unit of Father, Son, and chest also seems to be suspended in midair, and while no apparent force sustains it, an absolute levity is implied. In fact, the entire piece seems to radiate with the same elevated and controlled motion. All the figures work together as a unit, and this centralized whole seems to be floating upwards, as if projected and attracted by the same source. The seven figures in this roundel compose a harmonious microcosm of structured and mutually sustaining proportions.

Expository Inscriptions

By beginning with the plastic aspects of the panel, Grodecki's justified criticism of modern art historians for being "content to cite, annotate, or analyze the text by taking the windows themselves for secondary datum to a historical and iconographic problem" is averted. At the same time, a complete analysis must consider the text inscriptions in order to understand the symbiotic relationship between text and image, which together clarify the significance of the roundel. Suger even proclaims his didactic aim in giving inscriptions is "so that the [allegories] might be more clearly understood." Furthermore, the expository verse inscriptions of the roundels are not commonly found in works pre-dating Suger, and by becoming part of a bourgeoning iconography, also gain historical significance.

In De Administratione, Suger relates the inscriptions for the Arca roundel as: "Foederis ex Arca Christi cruce sistitur ara; / Foedere majori vult ibi vita mori." Panofsky's translation reads: "On the Ark of the Covenant is established the altar with the Cross of Christ; / Here Life wishes to die under a greater covenant." These inscriptions, as commentary on the image, enhance the pedagogic function of the roundel and illuminate the significance through and beyond the material reality of the Arca roundel. While the gold-gilt inscriptions literally break the isolation of the blue background to bring the figures into a closer-knit grouping, the inscriptions metaphorically render the symbolic import of the roundel as a whole more clear.

Epistle to the Hebrews

According to Suger's inscription, the gold chest with its arabesques, or "foliage" as Grodecki calls the ornamentation, represents the Ark of the Covenant introduced in Exodus 25:10-22, within which the tablets of the Mosaic Law were to be housed. Although an unfortunate restoration after 1848 replaced a section on the left hand side of the box, a sketch made by Fathers Cahier and Martin (fig.2) pre-dating the restoration shows the two tablets of the Law, as well as the rod of Aaron resting inside the originally open Ark. However, since Exodus states that only the commandments were housed in the Ark, the presence of the rod of Aaron is puzzling. By virtue of this discrepancy, Grodecki cites Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews as the scriptural source for this roundel:

The first covenant had a worldly sanctuary: after the second veil, the tabernacle, golden censer, ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron's rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant.

While the manna bread is not shown in the Ark, the compositional symmetry of the roundel lends itself to the conjecture that the left side of the Ark was open as well, where the manna was visible opposite the rod of Aaron. Christ crucified further relates to Hebrews 9:12 as "his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us." However, Grodecki maintains this interpretation to the exclusion of any other substantial scriptural reference:

Suger's distyque is only a gloss over the demonstration in the Epistle--as the image of Christ crucified, offering himself as victim as he hangs upon the Ark, is only an illustration of this text.

According to Grodecki's one-dimensional analysis of the roundel, Suger intended merely to illustrate an allegory of Paul, in keeping with the other roundels in the anagogical windows.

In his commitment to considering iconography over text, Grodecki emphasizes the scriptural reference from Hebrews in order to affirm his own view that the last inscription of the roundel between the bottom wheels of the ark, "Quadrige Aminadab", is of secondary import. However, Grodecki's analysis is in part a counter-action to the earlier one-dimensional interpretations of Fathers Cahier and Martin, and later, Émile Mâle who base their entire analyses of the Arca roundel on the Quadrige inscription. Despite this singular approach, Mâle does highlight the role of typology, or figuration, as the method to better understand the contextual meaning of the panel. As an enthusiast of a typological link between the Old Testament, and its significance in the light of the New, Mâle states:

The first covenant of man with God is only the symbol of another covenant that must be definitive. The ark appears as a pedestal for the cross.

Christ between the Church and the Synagogue

The basis for Mâle's analysis is the sole other roundel whose iconography is unaltered and is believed to be part of the anagogical windows, in which Christ stands between two female figures.(fig.3) As an inscription reading "Sinagoga" (sic) accompanies the figure on His left side and "Eclesia" (sic) accompanies the figure on the right side of Christ, these two figures are identified as the Synagogue of Judaism and the Church of Christianity. In the roundel, Christ lifts a veil off the Synagogue, as He crowns the Church, an action which Mâle indicates as representative of the True authority of the message of the Christian Church as abrogating the authority of Judaism as symbolized by the Synagogue. Mâle makes the thematic association between these two roundels and erroneously claims that the Incarnation of Christ renders the Hebrew Bible and Judaism 'void' while the Church as founded on the New Testament is alone legitimate.

Typology as Method of Interpretation

In fact, the typological significance of this scene lies in its establishment of the confluence between the Old Testament and the New, by showing how the figures in the Old are proleptic of, or intimate, what would be fulfilled in Christ, as recorded in the New. Above all, it is the idea of figure and fulfilment that informs this program--the law of the old is not abrogated, but fulfilled. In this sense, Mâle's assessment of the early Gothic column statues at Chartres is applicable. Along the outer west facade are released statues of personages from the Old Testament in four stages:

The great divisions of a universal history where everyone points to Jesus-Christ...Here the Bible appears to us truly how it did for the Middle Ages: a series of figures of Jesus-Christ, by which the sense becomes increasingly clear.

The pertinent part of his elucidation of these sculptures is the role of history of time as presenting figures for Christ who would come latterly as the redeemer to be the fulfillment of what was hinted throughout all time.

It is key to note that Suger reveals his intellectual sensibility to the typological method as he ascribes a similar confluence between the Old Testament figures and Christ while describing the Golden Crucifix:

And barely within two years were we able to have completed, through several goldsmiths from Lorraine--at times five, at other times seven--the pedestal adorned with the Four Evangelists; and the pillars upon which the sacred image stands, enabled with exquisite workmanship, and on it the history of the Savior, with the testimonies of the allegories from the Old Testament...

Suger states that the Old Testament allegories are testimonies to the history of the Savior, in the sense that they establish and affirm, in different ways, the narrative cycle which would be completely fulfilled in Christ. The figures of the Old Testament intimate the coming of Christ.

Quadrige Aminadab

In the light of Old and New Testament confluences expounded by Paul, the idea of figures being proleptic of Christ applies well to the Arca roundel when the last inscription, "Quadrige Aminadab", is taken into account. There is only one mention of the triumphant chariot in the Bible, as the Sunamite woman concludes her song to her beloved, yet absent, prince in the Song of Solomon. The King James Version reads: "Or ever I was aware, / my soul made me like the chariots of Ammin'adib." However, as the Hebrew is difficult to translate, the meaning varies. Grodecki's translation "Je ne sais, mon âme est troublée à cause de la char d'Aminadab," or "My soul is troubled by the chariot of Aminadab", completely changes the import of the line and seems to be closer to the Latin translation Suger would have read: "Nescivi, anima mea conturbavit me propter quadrigas Aminadab." Despite the obscurity of the line, the Quadrige garnered the attention of the Church Fathers whose traditional exegesis explains:

[The chariot of Aminadab] is the chariot of the Christian Church; Aminadab is Christ...the Sunamite, who is the symbol of the Synagogue, is worried by the triumph of the Church.

As the Hebrew 'nadab' means 'prince' ('ami' meaning 'my') the correlation between the proper name of the figure of Aminadab and Christ as the Heavenly Prince becomes more clear. Thus Mâle states:

The ark surmounted by the cross is truly, as the inscription states, the Quadrige of Aminadab, the triumphant chariot of the Song of Songs that the evangelists must carry to the end of the world.

During the intellectual renaissance of the twelfth century, the prominent theologian Peter Abelard, best known for his collection "Sic et Non" and his liaison with Heloise, found sanctuary as a monk in St. Denis during the years 1119-1126. Abelard, a possible inspiration for Suger by virtue of his proximity, also left a short analysis of the Quadrige whose analogy correlates to the above passage:

Understand that the body of the chariot is the envelope of divine writings /
By which the Word of God was transmitted to the innumerable Church. /
The four wheels of the chariot are the four Evangelists.

Through their Gospels, the Evangelists bore witness to and transmitted the message of the Christ. This symbolic association between the Ark as receptacle, and the triumphant chariot of the Church is likewise articulated in the Arca roundel.

Relating the Old and the New Covenants through Typology

The necessity of the Ark must be emphasized, as it provides the foundation for the New Covenant that was latterly fulfilled in Christ. Without the Ark of the Covenant, the New Covenant would not have been possible. The Cross rests within the ark, as Grodecki notes:

All of this of the utmost importance for the interpretation of the subject: the Ark was open and the cross was placed not in front of but within the ark, in the middle of the insignias of the Old Law.

If the Cross is seen as growing out of the Ark, it should be viewed as the arbor vitae, the tree of life, which has found fertile ground in the covenant established between God and Moses and blossomed by the benediction of Christ who seals the Covenant of eternal life for all with His death. The Old Law is not the pedestal upon which the New Law was placed, as Mâle expressed, but rather the foundation from which the New Law was able to grow. Another window in the Abbey, the Tree of Jesse, gives a more literal expression to the metaphor of the arbor vitae, as Christ's noble lineage stems from the root of Jesse and the Line of David in the Old Testament. The idea of the roots of the New Covenant as being in the Old Testament recalls Suger's insightful determination--in relation to the rebuilding of the church upon the sacred stones of the old edifice which then laid the sturdy foundation for the new construction--that "The recollection of the past is the promise of the future."

While this harmonizes with Grodecki's view that the Arca roundel is a depiction of Paul's message in Hebrews 9:1-15, Grodecki insists that the inscription referring to the Quadrige of Aminadab is merely a metaphorical patristic reference to the triumphant chariot of Christ as prince and the reign of the Church that figures into the iconography only by the inclusion of the wheels. In other words, Grodecki does not see the figure of Aminadab in the Song of Solomon as a pre-figuration of Christ, with the living historicity common to the Old Testament figures when typologically interpreted. Grodecki rejects a typological basis for the roundel, but he does so mistakenly believing that typology in the twelfth century is restricted to the opposition established by Mâle between the reproved Synagogue and the Church elect. Grodecki's aversion to typology is primarily in reaction to Mâle's incorrect assessment that the Old Testament chariot is only a 'symbol' of the Truth that would come with Christ.

Instead of the New Covenant abrogating that of the Old, the typology underpinning the iconography of the Arca roundel establishes the confluence between the Old and the New Covenants. The New Covenant sealed with Christ's sacrificial death finds its foundation in the Old Covenant represented by the Ark--God's earthly counterpart to his heavenly throne. The Incarnation of Christ changes the relationship established in the Old Covenant, for since He becomes the direct link between heaven and earth, symbolic mediations between man and the Divine are no longer necessary. God the Son has elicited an explicit reconciliation between God and man, as He is both fully divine and fully human.

The typology that Paul employs in Hebrews is likewise confluent with the depiction of the Ark as housing not only the tablets of the Law, but also the rod of Aaron and the pot of manna. The sign of the manna bread is most clearly explicated by the first roundel in the anagogical windows, of which Suger's verse inscription remains. Essentially, Paul grinds a mill to separate the pure flour of the New Testament from the bran of the Old Testament. Christ is the pure necessary substance whose body, which was given up for all, is remembered in the daily life of the Christian through the sacrament of the Eucharist. His new commandment likewise distills the essence of the Ten Commandments established between Moses and God, as what Christ has given is all that is essential to live life and to gain eternal repose. The rod of Aaron, which Grodecki indicates as 'blossoming', is the sign that determines the high priest from Numbers 17:5, as God says: "And it shall come to pass, that the man's rod, whom I shall choose, shall blossom." However, with Christ's Incarnation, He who is High Priest has rendered the temporal need for a high priest obsolete. Christ has the ultimate authority in these matters, as His word is that of God.

Even by affirming Grodecki's assertion that Hebrews is the scriptural reference, typology is likewise affirmed. Thus while Grodecki's interpretation of the Arca roundel as founded on Hebrews 9:1-15 is well substantiated, his methodology in affirming this scriptural reference is rather one-sided in his rejection of typology. The complex iconography of the Arca roundel shows that Suger did more than merely illustrate Hebrews, which would be a merely inadvertent use of typology. On the other hand, while Mâle's commitment to the Quadrige inscription emphasizes the role of typology in the Arca roundel, he does not see the confluence between the Old Testament and the New that characterizes a typological analysis, as he does not see the fulfilment, but only the abrogation of the Old Covenant.

In both cases, the method of each historian is faulty, despite sound scriptural references. Thus the dual analyses of the Arca roundel, by Grodecki and Mâle, actually complement each other, and render the hieroglyph more intelligible when considered together. Yet, there are still three elements of the iconography that have not found sufficient explanation: the representation of the wheels, the depiction of God the Father supporting and offering Christ crucified, and the didactic function of the medium of the stained glass.


Representation of the Wheels

In relation to the first question, the Scriptures indicate that the Ark of the Covenant was born by staves, or wooden poles: "And he put staves into the rings by the sides of the ark, to bear the ark. / And he made the mercy seat of pure gold." Even granting artistic license, representing the Ark as being transported by attached wheels is absurd and contrary to traditional depictions of the Ark of the Covenant. One traditional example is the ninth century representation of the Ark at San Germigny-des-Prés (fig.4) that is maintained on the poles common to the description in Exodus, while the two cherubim flank the ends. By departure from traditional representation and the incorporation of the wheels, the Ark becomes the Quadrige, as Grodecki describes:

At the four corners of the Ark, displayed flatly, without any concern for perspective, are four white wheels...These wheels, which we will discuss in relation to the sense of the scene, transform the Ark into a triumphant chariot, the Quadrige of Aminadab.

Thus stated, Grodecki makes his sole concession to the function of the Quadrige inscription in relation to the Arca roundel by seeing the Ark as the chariot from the Song of Solomon.

Even if this is the case, chariots are invariably driven on the ground, which renders the roundel's depiction of the Quadrige as floating in the air even more mysterious. In contrast, the other authentic anagogical roundel, Christ between the Church and the Synagogue (fig.3), Christ is slightly elevated but nonetheless rests his toes on the ground, while the temporal, earthly institutions of the Church and Synagogue are firmly planted on the ground. Since the adjacent windows depicting the "Life of Moses"(fig.5), present all the figures as directly connected to an earthly setting, the ethereal representation of the Quadrige finds no parallel in the other windows. The other possibility that the sheer force of God suspends the chariot in the air would not require the incorporation of the wheels into the iconography. Even if the iconography is intended to emphasize Abelard's assertion that the four wheels represent the four Evangelists by compositionally linking them to the wheels in the roundel, the wheels would maintain their allegorical function if represented on the ground. In sum, the presentation of the wheels as not-in-perspective indicates a vertical mobility, instead of the horizontal mobility of chariots.


The depiction of God the Father as both supporting and offering God the Son--Christ Crucified--also initially seems bizarre. In the Arca roundel, God the Father, as the top-most figure, alone looks directly ahead, while His piercing gaze meets that of the viewer. Mâle references this presentation of God the Father supporting the Cross as the first representation of the 'Mercy Seat', 'Throne of Grace' or Gnadenstuhl, whose representation of the Trinity derives from Paul's association linking the 'Mercy Seat' referring to the Ark of the Covenant in Exodus 37:6 and Christ crucified in Hebrews 9:4, whose act of mercy in His self-sacrifice sealed the New Covenant for the redemption of man. While this association is key to understanding the typological continuity established between the 'Foederis ex Arca', Ark of the Covenant, and the 'Foedere Majori', the Greater Covenant, in the Arca roundel, the 'Mercy Seat' was not Suger's invention, but was rather part of an established iconography. Gertrud Schiller introduces the Cross of Lothar, dating 980, as the first example of the development of the Gnadenstuhl. In this first stage, the symbols for God the Father and the Holy Spirit are incorporated into the image of the Crucifixion.

The Gnadenstuhl gained more prominence in the early twelfth century when renewed interest in understanding the Holy Trinity was sparked as part of the intellectual renaissance where man began to re-affirm the power of his faculty of reason. By engaging reason, once again man worked towards comprehension of the mystery of the Trinity through speculative analysis, which likewise influenced artistic representation. In the depiction of the manuscript illumination at Cambrai dating 1120 (fig.6), the Gnadenstuhl finds its first complete expression: God seated on a grounded throne resting his feet on a footstool, Christ crucified on the Cross, and the Holy Spirit as a dove connecting the two.

Thus while Mâle incorrectly cites Suger's Arca roundel as the first, this depiction of Father and Son with the complete Gnadenstuhl predates the Arca roundel by 20 years. Nonetheless, Mâle is correct in correlating the Father and Son in the Arca roundel and the conceptual principles underlying the Gnadenstuhl. A depiction of the Gnadenstuhl dating 1132 is the iconographic intermediary between Cambrai and the Arca roundel. In this depiction, a literal throne is not part of the iconography, but a half-mandorla surrounds God the Father. It is possible that this transition to a more abstract view of the Throne finds its completion in the Arca roundel where the Throne of God is the Chariot, as in the Song of Songs where Christ is Aminadab, while the Ark is the altar upon which lies the sacrifice of Christ.

In Suger's representation, the Throne-as-Chariot is not earth-bound, it is the 'Throne of God' which is also the 'Mercy Seat'; Christ's Throne is His Cross in the Chariot of the Ark of the Covenant. However, the Gnadenstuhl in the Arca roundel is apparently incomplete as the Holy Spirit is not present in any apparent symbolic form. Thus, with the Arca, Suger breaks with the iconography of the Gnadenstuhl, by abstracting the form of the throne, while maintaining its function by means of a triumphant chariot, to which the inscription "Quadriga Aminadab" is a witness.

Ezekiel's Vision of God

To posit a possible resolution to these apparent incongruities, a third scriptural inspiration for the Arca roundel can be incorporated: Ezekiel's vision of the Throne of God. To begin with, the symbolic forms associated with the Evangelists are derived originally from the Throne in Ezekiel. This association clarifies the relationship between the Evangelists and the wheels, as the four cherubim associated with the Throne of God in the Vision of Ezekiel are also each associated with their own wheel:

And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lift up from the earth, the wheels were lift up.

Although the Evangelists are not directly connected to the wheels in the Arca roundel, they are related compositionally and the relationship specified in Ezekiel is established: the Evangelists as the 'living creatures' in the form of the Tetramorph have a like, if not direct, kinship with the wheels. The Evangelists are disposed as the bearers of the Throne of God in Ezekiel, just as they metaphorically bear witness to the message of God through their respective Gospels.

Furthermore, the Chariot carried by the Tetramorph is significant as it is the Throne of God in Ezekiel's vision:

And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.

Instead of a ground-based throne as in other complete depictions of the Gnadenstuhl, the Throne of God in both the Vision of Ezekiel and the iconography of Suger are ethereal and do not seem to be subject to the weight of gravity. The association between the Chariot and the Throne is here clarified in full.

More interesting is the connection between the Spirit and this Throne of God, for the source of all movement is the Spirit, not the work of the Evangelists themselves: "And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went." As in the Arca roundel, the cherubim, as symbols of the Evangelists do not turn directionally because they have no need for physical sight to navigate. The Spirit imbues and directs them and guides their path. As "the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels," this Spirit could be associated with the Holy Spirit that alights the wheels and the creatures beside them to lift the Throne of God. The Spirit that imbues the wheels in Ezekiel is the missing Holy Spirit in the Arca roundel. Therefore, it would be redundant to symbolically represent the Holy Spirit as a dove, if the Spirit is actually imbuing all the elements in the roundel itself just as the Spirit imbues the Throne of God in Ezekiel. The lack of a literal depiction of the Holy Spirit does not detract from the trinitarian idea of the Gnadenstuhl, or airborne 'Mercy Seat', but rather gives it a more sophisticated conceptual form.

Medium of Stained Glass & Light Metaphysics

To enter into the parallels suggestive of Ezekiel and the medium of stained glass itself, the symbolism of the sun and the moon can be introduced. Earlier depictions of the Crucifixion (fig.7) are accompanied by the sun and moon, which Saint Augustine interprets as the light from the sun of Christ in the New Testament illluminating the moon symbolizing the Old Testament. However, Schiller states: "During the twelfth century the sun and moon ceased to be personified in the Crucifixion image." Thus, while the literal symbols of sun and moon are dismissed, the medium of stained glass itself fulfils an analogous pedagogic function. Now, it is the direct light from the natural sun that illuminates the Arca roundel, without which the images of the roundel would remain unintelligible. Christ is the light of the World, and as He symbolizes the sun, "here in the Crucifixion image the symbolism of cosmic sovereignty has been transformed into an eschatological symbolism of light."

More specifically, the stained glass as an analogue for the covenant recalls the Vision of Ezekiel on both the spiritual-intellectual and the sensory levels. To parallel the appearance of "the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps," the light penetrating the stained glass gives a similar effect of fiery luminescence. This brightness likewise shares attributes with Ezekiel, where he describes his sensory vision:

As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.

As Mâle describes "the pieces of red, blue, green and violet glass" , the entire color spectrum in the rainbow is found in the stained glass pieces that compose the Arca roundel.

Furthermore, while describing the main altar, Suger directly references the precious stones that compose the Throne of God in the Vision of Ezekiel to draw comparaisons between the inexplicable beauty of God's throne and the derivative, yet powerful, beauty of the Abbey's main altar, which are both constituted by the same eight gems. By extension, through the many colored fragments of glass, the Throne of God in the Arca roundel becomes a likeness to God's throne in Ezekiel composed of innumerable gems, both of which shine with as many colors. Thus Suger's attempt to translate the immaterial splendor of God's throne into an ephemeral likeness that hints at the eternal, ethereal beauty of the other indicates his overall aspiration to see the Arca roundel as the underlying microcosm of the macrocosm of the Abbey, which in turn represents the cosmos as a whole. Metonymically, the Abbey is to radiate its splendor as a temporal likeness to God's throne and His whole creation whereas this idea is at its most concentrated form in the Arca roundel. The Throne of God, made of precious materials whose splendor surpasses common human comprehension, is rendered partially intelligible by its transitory likeness through the didactic inscriptions that Suger carefully gives to point the viewer in the right path.

Pseudo-Dionysian light-metaphysics

This light symbolism derives from Pseudo-Dionysius' influence on Suger's philo-theology, an influence which Panofsky confirms by Suger's quoting of Ezekiel. By the twelfth century, the identity of Pseudo-Dionysius the nameless 6th century Syrian who wrote the theological treatises had at this time melded with the one of St. Denys (Denis/Dionysius) patron saint of France and the 1st century convert in Acts 17:34. Despite these confusions, Panofsky states that the Christian philosophy of pseudo-Dionysius was a blessing itself for Suger, as:

[This theology] permitted him to greet material beauty as a vehicle of spiritual beatitude instead of forcing him to flee from it as though from a temptation; and to conceive of the moral as well as the physical universe, not as a monochrome in black and white but as a harmony of many colors.

According to this analysis, the splendor of artistic arrangements of jewels and gold is but a learning tool of neo-Platonist pseudo-Dionysian metaphysics. Suger says:

When--out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God--the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.

If God is light as St. John, Pseudo-Dionysius and Suger believe, gems displayed in the everchanging light shows of the stained glass windows spark the ardor of love between man and God. Since God is Light, the light that is refracted through the gems and the stained glass is but a kaleidescopic disassemblage of God's body which, by anagogical association, presages the eventual reunion of all believers in the light and grace of the triune God.

While Suger's conception of anagogy is more literal and pragmatic, these traits work within the philo-theology of pseudo-Dionysius whose mysticism saw the union between mortal man and immaterial divine as temporally possible, thus rendering the object of upward and 'forward-looking' as something immanently achievable. Thus there is substance to Grodecki's claim that the "word 'anagogy' signifies for Suger not a coherent method of exegesis, which relate the sacred texts to the 'joys of heaven and eternal life' but a means of 'elevating the spirit from the material world to the immaterial'." Suger's conception of anagogy is, however, consistent with Henri de Lubac's definition of the medieval view of anagogy as where "from the flesh and temporal things, we pass to the spiritual and eternal."

Stained glass windows as a medium--which is all the more poignant in light of the iconography of the Arca roundel--serve the function of Pseudo-Dionysian light metaphysics while literally and pedagogically substantiating faith as defined by Paul in Hebrews 11:1 as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." Whenever the natural light of the sun penetrates the anagogical windows, it sets the Arca roundel ablaze and hints at the substance of things hoped for in this sparkling vision of God. By playing on the idea of 'seeing', the natural light that presently alights the image of God's glory through this depiction of His 'Mercy Seat', or Gnadenstuhl, intimates the eternal light and life of God that is the eschatos, or ultimate goal, of all attentive, faithful viewers.

Foedere Majori

Returning to Suger's verse inscriptions of the Arca roundel, this eschatos coincides with the third and last element possibly rooted in Ezekiel: "On the Ark of the Covenant is established the altar with the Cross of Christ; / Here Life wishes to die under a greater covenant." It is clear that a 'greater covenant' precedes and supersedes that of the contract between God and Moses. This covenant of covenants was made by God the Father with Abraham and it was sealed by God the Son with His own flesh. This covenant is intimated in Ezekiel as well. Instead of the Mosaic covenant's trans-generational promise between God and His chosen people in Genesis and Exodus, in Ezekiel God calls for individual repentance and each generation, in light of new insights, is called to take responsibility for themselves and forsake the sins of its ancestors. In return, God promises:

I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore.

This greater covenant that is intimated in Ezekiel finds in Christian exegesis its vehicle for fruition in Christ, provided that the new commandment is likewise obeyed:

That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. / By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

Christ's ultimate act of love of God and neighbor is His salvific death on the cross as sacrifice for the redemption of all men.

By incorporating the Vision of Ezekiel, the Arca roundel is endowed with a new surcharge of significance. However, as Christ has died and risen, it is not just the prophets, like Ezekiel, who are privy to this vision of God's glory, but all men are called and able to do the same by reading the signs of this roundel. The new age of man after Christ is left to await the ultimate fulfillment, their eschatos, where the immaterial blessings of God will be had by all believers for eternal life. The Trinitarian image of the Gnadenstuhl as the ethereal 'Throne of Grace', or 'Mercy Seat', further directs man towards a vision of the Final Judgment as related in the book of Revelation. However, the incorporation of Ezekiel in Suger's iconographic program of the Arca roundel, bears the promise of hope and joy for the future. Instead of fearing the judgment and wrath brought upon those who did not keep His covenant, as in Ezekiel, the believer can rejoice and know that he will reap his rewards from God, whose act of love spreads to all men. The marking of the Tau in the Vision of Ezekiel, as depicted in another roundel of the 'Marking of the Signum Tau', has been circumvented by the death of Christ on the Cross, so all may be marked solely by faith in order to gain eternal life.

In his invocation to Saint Denis on the golden altar front, Abbot Suger elucidates the grand agenda of the Abbey as not constituting an end in the completion of the earthly edifice:

Great Denis, open the door of Paradise
And protect Suger through thy pious guardianship.
Mayest thou, who hast built a new dwelling for thyself through us,
Cause us to be received in the dwelling of Heaven,
And to be sated at the heavenly table instead of at the present one.
That which is signified pleases more than that which signifies.

For Suger, the Abbey was the portal through which, by the grace of Denis and of God, the habitants would attain the heavenly edifice at the Table of Christ. Suger instructs that the work of the Abbey of St. Denis "should brighten the minds" with this self-same light of God, to enter "to the true Light where Christ is the true door." By seeing and living in the light of Christ, those who understand this mystery do so by starting with the material reality of the Abbey to rise to the True immaterial reality of God. This process, therefore, necessitates not only the transcendent reality of Christ and the Trinity which intimates man's final resting place when he is restored in unity with God, but also the literal, material reality of the Abbey through which man can gradually rise to contemplation of things sublime. Just as the Ark of the Covenant is a necessary foundation for the advent of the new law of grace, so can man only rise to the immaterial by first contemplating its material likeness or figure, affirming the belief that "the dull mind rises to truth through that which is material / And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submission."

The Abbey as macrocosm and the Arca roundel as microcosm are the signs of heavenly harmony and truth on Earth--intimations more directly of the future French glory to come, and it is by means of the signified of eternal life that the temporal signs of the Abbey gain political significance. By successfully erecting and adorning this edifice, in three years and three months no less, Suger sees God's approval: the reconstruction of Saint-Denis is God's handiwork where human hands by grace are able to glorify Him in the soaring reality of the Abbey and the luminosity of the Arca roundel. Grover Zinn affirms their success by saying:

[The church] that glorious structure reflected both Suger's accomplishments and those of the French crown, as well as the more subtle glory of the True Light manifest in the lesser lamps of this world.


Although the iconography of the Arca roundel was not directly copied after St. Denis, it is evident that the program attributed to Suger is markedly individual in terms of iconographic arrangement, presentation of figures, and above all by heightened thematic sophistication. By linking the Old law and the New, both the legal structure of the Mosaic code and the transcendent emphasis on spiritual rebirth are jointly presented. During the twelfth century, Suger's complex and insightful iconographic program, in conjunction with the literary inscriptions and incorporation of light metaphysics, finds justification for its seemingly spontaneous appearance. Further conjecture can be made as to the roots of the interplay between artistic and didactic functions in the birth of Gothic art--a new art that transcends the merely moralistic, where art becomes an aesthetic enterprise. With the Arca roundel, and the rest of the stained glass at St.-Denis the aesthetic does not outshine the pedagogic function; it articulates it and gives it new life. Just as Christ comes as the light to redeem the world in a truly mystically beautiful way, so too does art garner the ability to instruct through delight of the faculty of sight, which invariably encourages, not dissuades, the individual to penetrate with the inner eye of the intellect to discern beauty and harmony both in object and in thought. As Suger speaks of his 'anagogical way', beautiful art is a means by which the mind can begin with the material things of experience, and rise, step by step, to a contemplation of the immaterial grandeur that is True Beauty. While the aesthetic of the artwork is commensurate to the reception of the average viewer, the salient observer will understand art not as an end in itself, but as a means by which to arrive at a recognition of the truly beautiful--for as Suger says: "Significata magis significante placent", "the Signified is more delightful than the Signs."


Works cited:

Vulgatum. Biblia Sacra.

Gerson, Paula. Editor. Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: A Symposium. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York.1986.

- Gerson, Paula. “Suger as Iconographer: The Central Portal of the West Façade of Saint-Denis.” 199-228
- Grodecki, Louis. “The Style of the Stained-Glass Windows of Saint-Denis.” 273-282.
- Spiegel, Gabrielle. “History as Enlightenment: Suger and the Mos Anagogicus.” 151-158
- Zinn, Grover A. “Suger, Theology, and the Pseudo-Dionysian Tradition.” 33-40

Grodecki, Louis. “Les Vitraux Allégoriques de Saint-Denis.” Art de France. pp.19-46. 1961.

Grodecki. Les Vitraux de Saint-Denis: Etude sur le vitrail au XIIe siècle. Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi. France Etudes, I. Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Paris, 1976.

King James Version. Bible.

de Lubac, Henri. Exégèse Médiévale: Les Quatre Sens de l’Ecriture. Aubier. Editions Montaigne. 1959.

Male, Emile. L’art religieux du XIIe siècle en France. Librairie Armand Colin. Paris. 1928.

Male. L’art religieux du XIIIe siècle en France. Librairie Armand Colin. Paris. 1924.

Panofsky, Erwin. Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and its Art Treasures. Second edition by Gerda Panofsky-Soergel. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey. 1979.

Raymond, Elfie. Signs of Plenty: The Altar of Verdun.

Schiller, Gertrud. Iconography of Christian Art. Volume 2. Translated by Janet Seligman. New York Graphic Society LTD. Greenwich, Connecticut. 1972.

Snyder, James. Medieval Art. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. 1989.