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Abbot Suger of St-Denis
A redrawing of Suger from a stained glass window.
A redrawing of Suger from a stained glass window found in his abbey.
Bornc. 1080/1, likely in Chennevières-lès-Louvres[1]
Died13 January 1151 (aged ~70)
Resting placeBasilica of Saint-Denis

Suger (French: [syʒɛʁ]; Latin: Sugerius; c. 1081 – 13 January 1151) was a French abbot and statesman. He was a key advisor to king Louis VI and his son Louis VII, acting as his regent during the Second Crusade, with his writings remaining seminal texts for early twelfth-century Capetian history. His supervision of the rebuilding of the Basilica of Saint-Denis where he was abbot, was instrumental in the creation of Gothic architecture.

Early life[edit]

Several times in his writings he suggests that his was a humble background, though this may just be a topos or convention of autobiographical writing;[2] he was born into a family of minor knights, landholders of Chennevières-lès-Louvres, a small village surrounding St-Denis. In 1091, at the age of ten, Suger was given as an oblate to the abbey of St. Denis, where he began his education. He trained at the priory of Saint-Denis de l'Estrée, and there he first met the future king Louis VI of France. From 1104 to 1106, Suger's skills were recognised by leaders and he attended another school, perhaps that attached to the abbey of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire.[note 1]

Suger had a successful career as a lawyer before he became closely tied with the kings. In 1106 he became secretary to the abbot of Saint-Denis. In the following year he became provost of Berneval in Normandy; there, he was involved in successfully pleading at law and burdens which the estate suffered with, experiencing Henry I's Norman courts. Early-1109, Suger and Louis VI met again as he sat a dispute between the king and Henry I. In mid-1109, Suger was dispatched to Toury, an area which was suffering as a result of Hugh III of Le Puiset's exploitation of revenues; a series of disputes with Hugh and failing alliaces eventually led to Suger gaining experience on a battlefield.[3][4] He appeared to take up this new challenge, though would go on to regret this in his sixties and seventies.[5] There is a gap in sources on Suger's whatabouts after he left Toury, though likely he was either advancing his monastic position, alongside further (royal) negotiations.

From 1118 the sources start again, where Suger is deeply entrenched in royal affairs. He is chosen as the royal envoy to welcome the fleeing Pope Gelasius II (John of Gaetani) to France and arrange a meeting with Louis VI.[note 2][6] sent Suger to the court of Pope Gelasius II at Maguelonne (at Montpellier, Gulf of Lyon), and he lived from 1121 to 1122 at the court of Gelasius's successor, Calixtus II. On his return from Maguelonne, Suger became abbot of St-Denis. Until 1127, he occupied himself at court mainly with the temporal affairs of the kingdom, while during the following decade he devoted himself to the reorganization and reform of St-Denis.

Court Life and Influence[edit]

Suger served as the friend and counsellor to both Louis VI and Louis VII.

Suger and Louis VI[edit]

Suger and Louis VII[edit]

In 1137, he accompanied the future king, Louis VII, into Aquitaine on the occasion of that prince's marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, and during the Second Crusade served as one of the regents of the kingdom (1147–1149). He bitterly opposed the king's divorce, having himself advised the marriage. Although he disapproved of the Second Crusade, he himself, at the time of his death, had started preaching a new crusade.

Abbot Suger's chalice

Suger, the Regent (1147–9)[edit]

Though Suger was openly against[7] Louis VII's intention announced in 1145 to lead a crusade to rescue the Kingdom of Jerusalem, a council in February 1147 elected Suger to be a regent.[note 3] One of the reasons Suger was opposed to the crusade were the issues present in France at the time: Louis VII wrote shortly after setting out to ensure protection of Gisors, and only six weeks after his expedition, asking for money, asking Suger to use some from his own resources if necessary.[note 4]

He urged the king to destroy the feudal bandits, was responsible for the royal tactics in dealing with the communal movements, and endeavoured to regularize the administration of justice. He left his abbey, which possessed considerable property, enriched and embellished by the construction of a new church built in the nascent Gothic style. Suger wrote extensively on the construction of the abbey in Liber de Rebus in Administratione sua Gestis, Libellus Alter de Consecratione Ecclesiae Sancti Dionysii, and Ordinatio.

Contribution to the Arts[edit]

Gothic ambulatory at Saint-Denis

Abbey of Saint-Denis[edit]

Abbot Suger, friend and confidant of the French Kings Louis VI and Louis VII, decided in about 1137 to rebuild the great Church of Saint-Denis, the burial church of the French monarchs.[citation needed]

Suger began with the West front, reconstructing the original Carolingian façade with its single door. He designed the façade of Saint-Denis to be an echo of the Roman Arch of Constantine with its three-part division and three large portals to ease the problem of congestion. The rose window above the West portal is the earliest-known such example, although Romanesque circular windows preceded it in general form.[citation needed]

At the completion of the west front in 1140, Abbot Suger moved on to the reconstruction of the eastern end, leaving the Carolingian nave in use. He designed a choir (chancel) that would be suffused with light.[note 5][note 6] To achieve his aims, his masons drew on the several new features which evolved or had been introduced to Romanesque architecture, the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, the ambulatory with radiating chapels, the clustered columns supporting ribs springing in different directions and the flying buttresses which enabled the insertion of large clerestory windows.[citation needed]

The new structure was finished and dedicated on 11 June 1144,[8] in the presence of the King. The Abbey of Saint-Denis thus became the prototype for further building in the royal domain of northern France. It is often cited as the first building in the Gothic style. A hundred years later, the old nave of Saint-Denis was rebuilt in the Gothic style, gaining, in its transepts, two spectacular rose windows.[9]

Suger's Collections[edit]

Suger was also a patron of art. Among the liturgical vessels he commissioned are a gilt eagle, the King Roger decanter, a gold chalice and a sardonyx ewer.[citation needed] A chalice once owned by Suger is now in the collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Eleanor of Aquitaine vase which he received that was subsequently offered to the saints at his abbey is now held in the Louvre in Paris, believed to be the only existing artefact of Eleanor's to exist today.

The vases de Suger series of commissioned vases
A gold cup
Chalice of Suger, with on onyx cup of the 2nd or 1st century BC.
A gold eagle metalwork surrounding a vase
Suger's Eagle, with a 2nd-century porphyry vase.
A vase, with a translucent crystal middle
Eleanor of Aquitaine vase, a rock crystal vase from 6th- or 7th-century Persian vessel.
A vase, with translucent body with bird patterning
Aiguière aux oiseaux ("Ewer with birds") with a 10th- or 11th-century Egyptian rock-crystal vessel.
A vase made of gem and hard stone; an ewer
Sardonyx ewer (Aiguière en Sardoine), with a vase possibly from 7th-century Byzantium.


Suger's Writing[edit]

Suger wrote several works, which regarded for their accuracy and detail. Of these, two record his activities as abbot of St-Denis. The Libellus Alter de Consecratione Ecclesiae Sancti Dionysii (Other Little Book on the Consecration of Saint-Denis) is a short treatise on the building and consecration of the abbey church.[10] The Liber De Rebus in Administratione sua Gestis (Book on Events under his Administration) is an unfinished account of his administration of the abbey, which he started on request of his monks in 1145.[11] In these texts, he treats of the improvements he had made to St Denis, describes the treasure of the church, and gives an account of the rebuilding. Unlike other medieval texts recording the deeds of religious figures, Suger’s are written by himself.[12]

Of his histories, Vie de Louis le Gros (Life of Louis the Fat) is his most substantial and widely circulated. It is a panegyric chronological narrative of king Louis VI, primarily concerned with warfare, but also his dependence on the Saint-Denis abbey.[13] Historia gloriosi regis Ludovici (The Illustrious King Louis) is the other demonstrably unfinished work of Suger, accounting for the first year of Louis VII’s reign.[14] Written in Suger’s final years, it (like his other history) covers in great detail events where Suger was himself present or involved in.

Suger’s secretary, William, himself produced two works on Suger: the first, a letter shortly after his death announcing the death; the other a short biography (Sugerii Vita; The Life of Suger) authored between summer 1152 and autumn 1154.[15][note 7] A collection of Suger’s letters exist in Saint Denis, mostly from near the end of his life, though its provenance is unknown.[16] Suger's works served to imbue the monks of St Denis with a taste for history and called forth a long series of quasi-official chronicles.[17]

Suger in the Gothic tradition[edit]

Modern historiography[edit]

In the 1940s, the prominent art-historian Erwin Panofsky claimed that the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite influenced the architectural style of the abbey of St. Denis, though later scholars have argued against such a simplistic link between philosophy and architectural form.[note 8] Similarly the assumption by 19th century French authors that Suger was the "designer" of St Denis (and hence the "inventor" of Gothic architecture) has been almost entirely discounted by more recent scholars. Instead he is generally seen as having been a bold and imaginative patron who encouraged the work of an innovative (but now unknown) master mason.[18][19]



  1. ^ The details of this education were not given: Rudolph and Bur both argue for Fleury on literary grounds, for it was a school known for its tradition of historical writing.
  2. ^ Pope Paschal II dies January 1118; John of Gaetani is made the new pope, becoming Gelasius II; Henry V marched on Rome and appointed an antipope; Gelasius fled to France to the protection of Louis VI.
  3. ^ Initially, Suger and William, count of Nevers were chosed in an election dominated by St Bernard, with the rationale as "twin swords—the ecclesiastical and securar—[to] protect the realm." William's imminent retirement as a monk meant that Ralph of Vermandois and, to a lesser degree, Archbishop Samson of Reims, to be co-regents with Suger. Grant, Church and State, 157.
  4. ^ "sive de nostro seu de vestro pecuniam sumptam nobis mittatis," [whether you send us money taken from us or from you,] in Recueil des Historiensdes Des Gaules et de la France, ed. Martin Bouquet et al. (Paris, 1869–1904) vol 15, p. 487.
  5. ^ When the new rear part is joined to that in front,
    The church shines, brightened in its middle.
    For bright is that which is brightly coupled with the bright
    And which the new light pervades,
    Bright is the noble work Enlarged in our time
    I, who was Suger, having been leader
    While it was accomplished.
    Abbot Suger: On What Was Done in His Administration c.1144–8, Chap XXVIII
  6. ^ Erwin Panofsky argued that Suger was inspired to create a physical representation of the Heavenly Jerusalem, however the extent to which Suger had any aims higher than aesthetic pleasure has been called into doubt by more recent art historians on the basis of Suger's own writings.
  7. ^ After Suger’s death, William’s leading of a faction against the new abbot at Saint Denis, Odo of Deuil, meant he was exiled. It was during exile that he authored the life of Suger; it was thus intended to portray Suger in good light, implicitly criticising Odo. Grant, Church and State, 44.
  8. ^ For a summary of the 'arguments against' Panofsky's view, see Panofsky, Suger and St Denis, Peter Kidson, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 50, (1987), pp. 1–17


  1. ^ Charles Higounet, La Grange de Vaulerent (Paris: S. E. V. P. E. N., 1965) 69.
  2. ^ Grant, Church and State, 45.
  3. ^ Suger, VLG, 150–70.
  4. ^ Grant, Church and State, 94–6.
  5. ^ For his later disavowal: Suger, Admin., 44.
  6. ^ Suger, VLG, 200.
  7. ^ Willelmus, Vita., 394.
  8. ^ Honour, H. and J. Fleming, (2009) A World History of Art. 7th edn. London: Laurence King Publishing, p. 376. ISBN 9781856695848
  9. ^ Wim Swaan, The Gothic Cathedral
  10. ^ Suger, Consc.
  11. ^ Suger, Admin., 155.
  12. ^ H. E. J. Cowdrey, The Age of Abbot Desiderius (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983) 13–6.
  13. ^ Suger, VLG.
  14. ^ Suger, Hist. VII.
  15. ^ Willelmus, Vita.
  16. ^ Grant, Church and State, 43–5.
  17. ^ Anne D. Hedeman, The Royal Image: Illustrations of the Grandes Chroniques de France, 1274-1422 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) 3–6, 10. Free access icon
  18. ^ Conrad Rudolph, Artistic Change at St Denis: Abbot Suger's Program and the Early Twelfth Century Controversy Over Art, Princeton University Press, 1990
  19. ^ Kibler et al (eds) Medieval France: An Encyclopedia, Routledge, 1995


Contemporary Works[edit]


Journal Articles[edit]

  • Kidson, Peter. "Panofsky, Suger and St Denis." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 50 (1987), pp. 1–17. JSTOR.
  • Inglis, Erik. "Remembering and Forgetting Suger at Saint-Denis, 1151–1534: An Abbot’s Reputation between Memory and History." Gesta 54, no. 2 (September 2015), pp. 219–43. JSTOR.


See also[edit]