Abbot Suger,
the Cathedral of St. Denis,
History of Art I....
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Autumn 1964, I was an 18 year old freshman undergraduate student at Yale. One of our first assignments in the History of Art I course was to write a paper about Abbot Suger and the cathedral of St. Denis. The teacher, Prof. George Heard Hamilton, lectured to us about Abbot Suger seeing the beautiful objects made of precious materials with which he furnished the church, as symbolizing God and, by their radiant beauty, drawing persons' attention up above earthly matters to higher, Heavenly things.
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The teacher especially noted Suger's use of stained glass, with its symbolism of "light", and that, through his use of this material, Abbot Suger had initiated a transition in the history of art, beyond the romanesque period with its heavy and dark church architecture (the so-called "Dark Ages"...), to a new period of greater light both physical and metaphorical: the "gothic" period....
 
What the teacher lectured about Abbot Suger and his precious things and what they meant to him, sounded plausible to me, but my attention was only really engaged by the assignment the teacher gave to write a paper about all this. I had no idea how to produce this precious object -- which, however, differed from Suger's precious objects in that, (1) it had an impact on my life, and (2) as soon the teacher graded it and returned it to me, it would go in a trash can rather than being preserved by the educated community for a thousand years. I think I vaguely felt at the time like I was in some kind of bad dream from which I had no chance of waking up and escaping (although I did not know enough to have been able to state this at the time). I have no recollection what I wrote, but it must have met the criteria, since I did pass the course.
 
"History of Art I" was part of a special program, "Directed Studies", in which I had been accepted in my freshman year. Most freshmen took a different history of art "intro" course, lectured by a famous professor: Vincent Scully. Two differences between their course and mine were: (1) they had to memorize names and dates of about 300 objects in the history of art, from among which pictures of a few would be shown as part of their final examination to identify, and (2) the seminar part of their course was taught by graduate students, whereas the seminar part of my course was led by the same full professors who did the lecture part. In Directed Studies, we did not have to memorize specific facts but were expected to write more essays and engage in deeper seminar discussion.
 
I "audited", i.e., sat and listened, "not for course credit", to the lectures in the regular introductory history of art course -- which I found interesting (and did not impose any requirements on me!). I distinctly remember the passion with which Professor Scully described artworks of which he showed pictures on a large screen in front of the class. Once, talking about Giotto's Arena Chapel paintings, he got so emotional that he broke into tears and stopped the lecture. The most affecting moment, for me, however, was when he suddenly stopped in the middle of a sentence and looked around the room at a couple hundred students all busily taking notes on what he said to be able to repeat it back for the exam. Professor Scully told the students to stop taking notes and appreciate the beautiful art works -- and he directly addressed the concern implicit in the students' note taking which had been distracting them from such delectation: He told the class that they would not be graded on his lectures, but only on the 300 objects they were supposed to memorize.
 
For me, this statement by Professor Scully about the process of studying the history of art (what I would now call a: meta-theoretical reflection...) was probably the most important thing I learned about the history of art in my 4 years at Yale: that appreciating great art and being tested on it were incompatible, but I was required to do the latter and if I succeeded in doing that, I was permitted -- better: encouraged -- to have the former. The highest ideals of human culture were ultimately grounded not in metaphysical and/or theological universals but in getting passing grades on "papers", exams and quizes. (In the end, my attendance of Professor Scully's lectures "paid off", by chance, in a way I could never have anticipated. It may have given me some better appreciation of the meaning of art, and more things to write in the essay assignments in my course. When, however, in the final exam in my course, one of the questions was to write an essay about a certain modern building of which a picture was shown on a large screen, and which we students were not expected to know by name but only to analyze as a representative example of modern art -- I was probably the only student who could begin his answer by stating: "This is a picture of Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavillion....")
 

 
Thus we see how meaning does not reside in objects, but rather meaning resides in our relation with objects, where "our" means, in each case, the my of the particular person -- you, me, other -- who actually is in the relation. I was a student needing to get a good grade in History of Art I so that I would not suffer the undesirable consequences of "flunking out of school" (which, at the time, included likelihood of being sent to Vietnam as an infantry soldier...). Consequently, Abbot Suger's beautiful objects and their analogical relation to the glories of God and the elect in Heaven, meant for me being stuck in a banal, anxiety producing quandary to figure out how to write something for a teacher that would get me that good grade when I had nothing to say about Abbot Suger and his thoughts about these beautiful things, other than that what the teacher had said sounded plausible. Neither had I been taught to expect meaning in my life, in Abbot Suger's radiant religious objects or anywhere else, even after the teacher said there was meaning in Abbot Suger's precious objects (and the things they symbolized). And, of course, if I had understood all this, I probably could not have satisfied the course requirements by writing something both true and meaningful to me, like:
"I have heard what you, teacher, have said about Abbot Suger and the way he saw these beautiful things as symbolizing God and drawing us closer to Him, but I find nothing here to write a paper for you about, unless you work with me so that we can find such a mutually meaningful way to appropriate this material. Can we do this, and in a way that I will feel safe and not be distracted from the beauty of the art by fear of failing this course?"
Or, like Kafka's parable of the man who stands before the entrance to the law, am I tragically mistaken? Did I only have to ask to be treated as a human being and not as a "student", to become one -- to wake up from the bad dream of my young life, and enter and dwell for the rest of my life in a higher realm of beauty and light?
 

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Copyright © 2001-2003 Brad McCormick, Ed.D.
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05 January 2010 (2010-01-05 ISO 8601)
v03.02
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