Tearing the Veils: Uncovering What Is Hidden

On Initiation in Aquinas’

Summa Theologica

There is no path to self-actualization without trial. The veiling which slows one’s such journey, as Aquinas puts it, justifies the beautification of God’s wisdom in Suger’s improvements of Saint Denis.  Through the veils of simultaneously beautiful-blinding obscurity, one comes to admire both the “craftsmanship of the work” and “travel, through the true lights” to become craftsman one’s self (Suger, On the Abbey Church of St. Denis and its Art Treasures, FYP Handbook, 75). Through this journey, and consequent succession of unveiling, one crafts his or her enlightenment. In relation to “what Dionysius says”, tiered knowledge and initiatory revelation are an integral part of Christian experience; the “divine rays” of enlightenment are too bright for the faithful to encounter safely and must “be hidden within the covering of many sacred veils” (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, FYP Handbook, 25).

Abbot Suger in his numerous and prominent additions to the Abbey Church of Saint Denis managed to control the entry not only of God into the place of worship, but too, of the minds of people into a common space in which the potential of their interaction was increased. Suger, in his revolutionary decoration of a divine edifice created the quintessential example of the dynamic Dinoysius was said by Aquinas to have been extolling. These two points form the crux of what is an undeniable relation between the following and Abbot Suger’s investment.

This is what Dionysius says: We cannot be enlightened by the divine rays except they be hidden within the covering of many sacred veils (Aquinas, 25).

The Abbot certainly believed “we cannot be enlightened by the divine rays except they be hidden”, for in his very dedication of his great artistic commissions, he said “bright is the noble work; but, being nobly bright, the work should brighten the minds” (Aquinas, 25; Suger, 75). It was in Suger’s vast, costly project that one found created a conduit through which “the dull mind rises to truth through that which is material” (Suger, 76). With these intentions now expressed, for each of the above are quoted by Suger himself as being inscribed upon the gilded bronze doors he installed at Saint Denis, one may now begin to look at the influence of this philosophy on the structure it inspired. To express it directly, Abbot Suger was remodeling and glorifying the Church of Saint Denis to let God in, and the people, the parishioners, into God: “both for the beauty of the church and, should circumstances [such as quests for enlightenment] require it, for practical purposes” (Suger, 75).

Primary in making God accessible through the Church of Saint Denis was the installation and improvement, indeed, innovation of that building’s famous windows. A first for Gothic architecture, Suger insisted on as many windows as possible, allowing the remnants of “divine light” to pour in, “[f]or the most liberal Lord Who, among other greater things, has also provided the makers of the marvelous windows . . . [and] will not suffer that there be a lack of means for [their] completion” (Aquinas, 25; Suger, 78). Obviously, Suger was determined to intimate that his project was one not for the Lord, but one of the Lord. With this divine motive, Suger physically let more light into his church than any abbot previously, and, with the quote of Dionysius from Aquinas, one can see this allowed the divine in too, since the divine is light (Aquinas, 25).

“[W]hen under the persuasion of some[,] we had devoted our efforts to carrying on the work”, and in so doing Suger proceeded to play in as many ways of fiscally and artistically possible with the enhancement of the light (Suger, 77). By gilding the doors, and massive altar-piece of Saint Denis, Suger made the crucial bond between the temporal and spiritual, adhering the refraction of the divine light “[t]o the True Light where Christ is the true door” (Suger, 76). This continual exploration of the allegory of light and enlightenment of the devout is again expressed in an inscription by Suger himself, preserved intentionally for prosperity on his works: “[m]ayest thou, who hast built a new dwelling for thyself through us, cause us to be received in the dwelling of Heaven”, which, in other words, implies that Suger’s Church of Saint Denis is intended to be a new house for God (Suger, 79). Surely, it is a house where the divine is always home and the faithful his callers can be well-received. As quoted, and inscribed at the entry of the church, the parishioners are directed to “[m]arvel not at the gold and the expense but at . . . the work [which should] brighten the minds” (Suger, 75).

The remaining point showing the relation between Suger’s improvements of Saint Denis, and Dionysius’ philosophy is that of Christian art as being dissimulative in this example. “ . . . [H]idden within the covering of many sacred veils” is “enlightenment” as Dionysius says, and Suger quite successfully, or at least through the greatest effort, veils that which is inherent (Suger, 76). That “inherent in this world[,] the golden door defines” and what Suger is attempting to define with his golden door at Saint Denis is the world-soul, or that which the Hermeticists called Hermes Trismegistus: the divine, God (Suger, 76). The reason for concealing from us that which is apparently inherent and ever-present in our sphere of existence is to sift out the righteous from the blasphemous. This dichotomy of beauty and beauty-hiding-an-even-more-beautiful-thing is hinted at by the very now oft-quoted dedication of the doors by Suger: “[b]right is the noble work; but, being nobly bright, the work should brighten the minds” (Suger, 75).

The success of dissimulation in artwork is that is hides within something complete, a thing which is exclusive, though incomplete without the disguise offered by that which is outwardly complete. The history of the Christian faith by far presents its case of the need for clandestine worship and communication, especially in its earliest days, out of which but recently Suger was coming. That Saint Denis, “[t]his place[,] exists as an outstanding asylum for those who come” is more noticeable when one considers the other dichotomy which pervaded Christian existence in the Middle Ages: undereducated peasantry and scholarly nobles (Suger, 79). The outwardly complete beauty of the gilded adornments and stunning windows of the Abbey Church of saint Denis would have been to these two types of devout an awe-inspiring exercise; the peasantry could marvel in the glittering sight of the power of both Church and God before them, while the educated class could find themselves drawn in by this exquisite show of devotion, and delve beyond its depiction into its symbolism. To reinforce this potential, and to justify his extravagant investment, Suger speaks of his project thus: “He who gave the will also gave the power; because [this] good work was in the will therefore it stood in perfection by the help of God. How much the Hand Divine Which operates in such matters has protected this glorious work . . . [to be completed]” (Suger, 76).

In consecrating his work as a dualist mechanism of divine communication, a communication betwixt certain souls of the devout, and the world-soul, Suger perfectly heeded the advice of Dionysius. The analogy of the veils proves the best for such a situation, in that veils though being covers of one’s face, are also sheer, and thereby permissive of glancing through; in this vein, the exuberance of Saint Denis, in its bright reflection of the effects of nature, and of God, permits its parishioners a glimpse, if they wish and are able, past the sheer adornment into the mind of the divine. In pursuit of this, Dionysius’ ideal as recorded by Aquinas, Suger encased Saint Denis “with continuous gates to hold off disturbances by crowds; in such a manner, however, that reverend persons, as was fitting, might be able to see [the bodies and knowledge of the saints] with great devotion and a flood of tears” (Suger, 79)

Works Cited

Aquinas. “Summa Theologica.” Foundation Year Programme Handbook. Halifax: University of King’s College, 2006-07.

Suger, Abbot. “On the Abbey Church of Saint Denis and its Art Treasures.” Foundation Year Programme Handbook. Halifax: University of King’s College, 2006-07.