In the early twelfth century in Paris, a remarkable blend of influences led to far-reaching developments that would later strangely resonate in Glastonbury. It had begun centuries before with the misidentification of three different figures. An obscure associate of St Paul named Dionysius the Areopagite was mixed up with a neo-platonic Gnostic tinged Christian mystical philosopher now generally known as Pseudo Dionysius. They were in turn falsely linked with the patron Saint of Paris, St Denis. All three became one individual.
A royal abbey named after the saint became the most important in Paris.
In 1123, one Abbot Suger took charge of the place. He was a major political figure who had served as prime minister and was closely allied with the monarchy having actually arranged and presided over the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to the future King Louis.
The abbot wanted to rebuild the existing church in a spectacular manner that would make it the wonder of Europe. It would be constructed to present the teachings of Paris’ patron saint to the world, to lead people to the divine light. Nine chapels in the eastern apse and a further nine in the crypt would call to mind the nine orders of angels. The decoration would evoke the city of the New Jerusalem. By 1133, Suger had assembled an international team of artists and craftsmen, including Arabic glass-makers. The whole style of the building, including the first major appearance of huge coloured stained glass windows in Europe was an event of significant cultural impact. Suger referred to it as an “opus modernum,” a modern work. In terms of its effects on people’s consciousness, the new multi-media art-form with its synaesthetic blending of space, light, colour, sound, and smell in the interaction of building and ritual would be the LSD of the day. It was very much a case of the shock of the new. The medium was a vital aspect of the message.
This prototype Gothic cathedral was finished in 1144. The dedication ceremony at St Denis was attended by many leading figures of the age, including the royal couple Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine, a multi-national host of bishops, a vast throng of nobility, and the top ecclesiastical superstar of the time, Bernard of Clairvaux.
One extraordinary artefact was a notable centrepiece for the dazzling bejewelled edifice. A sardonyx cup, now considered to have originated in Alexandria during the second to first centuries BC, was incorporated into a gold and silver chalice adorned with gems. It was used to hold wine for Mass and had featured in Eleanor’s coronation. The Suger chalice (now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington) is one of the minor contenders in the cup of Christ relic stakes. What’s interesting here is that such an item, regardless of its true provenance, was a focal point of such a richly realised cosmological vision in stone and glass, the main model for a whole culture that followed. From its beginnings at St. Denis, the new style soon spread all over Europe.