Saint-Denis: Suger and Terrorists
Being old and forgetful has its advantages. Since I’m making this claim based on my personal interpretation of both my age and my particular brand of forgetful, let me add that these advantages assume that the society I live in is free, tolerant and based on the rule of law. Recent events in Lebanon, Egypt and, of course, Paris, require this additional caveat. The liberal values I want to live under into my dotage can not condone the loss of innocent lives for attending a concert, supping in a cafe, flying home from vacation, shopping.
The length of my age can be measured in the number of pursuits in which I have dabbled. Being forgetful has required the maintenance of a small library of essential works from those dabbled-in subjects. Together these advantages provide a way to reflect on a short sojourn in Paris immediately following the horror of a series of coordinated terrorist attacks.
Rain wasn’t expected until the late afternoon, so my old friends Bill and Mijo and I took off in the morning from their 20ième arrondissement sabbatical quarters to walk along the Canal de l’Ourcq to Saint Denis. We did a Rosie Ruiz taking the metro to the Jaurès stop, cutting the length of the walk down to about 5 km.
Our hike started at the bottom of the Basin de la Villette. Bill and Mijo pointed out a folly that is part of the Parc de la Villette. It seems la Villette’s architect, Bernard Tschumi, consulted with Jacques Derrida, the deconstructionist. The collaboration lead to the construction of a number of follies in the park.
Beyond la Villette, we ran into a closed section of the canal path that required a detour through a new urban forest that promises to restore a neglected brownfield area in the northeastern corner of the city into a series of thriving habitats by 2030. Mijo noted that we will be too old to verify whether this happens.
We had to ask for help to get back onto the canal path. Although we were now in the Commune de Saint-Denis, most people felt the distance to the Basilica was too great to walk. They also did not seem to know how to get onto the canal path, although it lay just to the west of where we were. Clearly it is a road less traveled. We soon learned why.
Above the detour, our hike took us past the Stadt de France, where Germany and France had been playing soccer when three terrorists — part of the coordinated attacks of 13 November and wearing explosive belts — were prevented from entering the stadium by security guards because of those explosives or, perhaps, just becasue they did not have tickets. Each detonated his belt, however, one also killing a nearby bus driver. President Hollande was in the audience at the stadium. No one attending the event was injured.
This section of the canal path abuts a seedy wholesale market on one side and derelict industrial area on the other. After some distance, the path on the western side turns into a jogging and biking route that eventually lead us to the village of Saint-Denis. Known in the first half of the 20th century as “la ville rouge” for its communist party affiliations, the commune now includes a large Maghrebian population.
In its heyday in the 12th century, Abbot Suger oversaw the enlargement of a Merovingian church into the first full embodiment of the Gothic style. Even on a gray day, the lightness of the interior is striking. Formerly solid walls have been opened with windows, and the columns delineating the nave from the aisles reduced to slender ribs rising gracefully to arches and vaults that in this new style are supported on the outside of the structure.
Being old and forgetful I once knew a great deal more about Suger, his building, and the abbey’s historic relationship to other religious centers, notably Chartres, and Merovingian and French monarchies. But that Tuesday morning it was not possible to refresh my memory by visiting the tombs and the crypt. They were still in lock-down mode after the terrorist attacks. Perhaps the government knew that before dawn the next morning Parisian police would besiege an apartment near the Stadt de France where terrorists were indeed found and killed.
Once home from my travels I pulled Erwin Panofsky’s translation of Suger’s account of his activities as Abbot of Saint-Denis, the Liber de Rebus in Administratione Sua Gestis, from my small library. Panofsky writes in his introduction to the work: “Rarely — in fact, all but never — has a great patron of the arts been stirred to write a retrospective account of his intentions and accomplishments.” He notes that men of action and men of expression have resorted to autobiography and self-interpretation, but not patrons. “The Hadrians and Maximillians, the Leos and Juliuses, the Jen de Berrys and the Lorenzo de’ Medicis decided what they wanted, selected the artists, took a hand in devising the program, approved or criticized its execution and paid — or did not pay — the bills…A special concatenation of circumstances…were needed to bring into existence the documents produced by Suger, and preserved by time’s mercy.”
I also checked my undergraduate professor, Peter Janson’s, History of Art, who writes mostly about the interior of the church, although as a student of art history I was more interested in the sculptural program on the western façade and would have appreciated a fuller description of that portion of the church in my refresher course. The façade has been renovated since I was there last. I took some photos.
Between Panofsky and Jansen, I replaced any lament at not having an encyclopedic memory with the joy of returning to something I once studied, admittedly with vastly less thoroughness, but, as with any rereading, a different appreciation. Now as I reread, I paid attention to the fact that Panofsky only translated the Introduction and Second Part (as he calls it) of the Liber de Rebus. He justifies his decision because that part dealt with “the remodelling and interior embellishment of the church” whereas the first part dealt with “the improvement of the Abbey’s economical condition.”
The grown-up me — having parted ways with art history because, as an endeavor, it did not concern itself with how art fit into society, and having spent a subsequent career on the edges of the field of economics and the role of finance in development — would love to know more about how Suger improved the Abbey’s financial condition. Perhaps this section could have been retold in as fascinating a manner as Amitav Ghosh portrayed a 12th century Jewish merchant and his two slaves trading throughout the Middle East in his book “In an Antique Land.” Or perhaps a scholar like John Michael Montias could have used Suger’s economic essay as the basis for a social history as delightful and informative as his “Vermeer and His Milieu” in which he pieces together a remarkable portrait of 17th century town life and art in Holland. By the way, he discovers that Vermeer had one primary patron who bought nearly half of his mature works.
Back to Saint-Denis and the terrorists. The town hall wore a banner that read: La meilleure résponse à la barbarie, c’est de faire face ensemble.
“Barbarie.” In my long life I have seen too many unspeakable crimes though, luckily for me, they have been at a distance. Such crimes are against all of humanity and not possible to forget. “…de faire face ensemble.” No book in my library explains what they mean and how to banish them forever.
Can we hope we share despite differences of culture and religion sufficient repulsion at the barbarism and enough collective interest in our various pasts and futures that we can stand together against it? I’m ready for signs of such progress before I get any older.