ORB Online Encyclopedia
Pseudo-Dionysius in the Twelfth Century Latin West
During the twelfth-century search for authorities the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius were increasingly used as part of a new theological outlook. No doubt the choice of pseudonyms by the author of the corpus aided in its popularity, yet the original synthesis of Christian teaching and the Neoplatonism of the fifth century found in the writings spoke powerfully to the twelfth-century context. Writers sought to mine the Dionysian corpus for insights into the nature of reality and the contemplative ascent ending in union with God. (…)
Dionysian Thought at the Abbey of St.-Denis It is undisputed that Suger, abbot of St. Denis (1122- 1151) drew on Dionysian light mysticism for the justification of the stained glass windows and symbolism throughout the abbey church (Panofsky 19- 26). In his works, the De Administratione, the De Consecratione and the Ordinatio there is a polemical description of the project which acts as a guide to the construction of the building and its symbolism. Suger used Dionysian thought for the inspiration of the symbolism as well as the justification for the elaborate nature of the project. The poem in De Administratione 26 lies at the heart of his Dionysian framework for the symbolism of the tympanum. Suger recorded the verses which were inscribed on the door. He states,
Whoever thou art, if thou seekest to extol the glory of these doors, Marvel not at the gold and the expense but at the craftsmanship of the work. Bright is the noble work; but, being nobly bright, the work Should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights, To the True Light where Christ is the true door. In what manner it be inherent in this world the golden door defines: The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from is former submersion (Panofsky 47-9).
In the final two verses there is a clear Dionysian theme of the person rising through the various hierarchies encoded in symbols from material to immaterial until union with the divine is achieved.
The extent to which Pseudo-Dionysius thought was incorporated into the construction of the abbey and Suger’s own source for that thought have caused debate. Panofsky suggested that Suger mined the Celestial Hierarchy and Eriugena’s commentary for insight (Panofsky 18-19), recently however scholars have looked to a more contemporary source for Suger’s inspiration. Hugh of St. Victor has been pointed to as the one who brought Dionysian thought to the attention of Suger. Zinn and Rudolph have both argued that one can detect certain features of Hugh’s own thought interwoven into the design of the abbey (Zinn, « Suger » 33-40; Rudolph 32-47). One such feature is the prominence of Christ in the symbolism. Christ has virtually no role to play in the Dionysian writings, however, Hugh placed Christ at the center in his writings. The extent of the influence of Hugh on Suger has not been fully explored, yet it points to the central role which St. Victor played in the dissemination of Dionysian thought. Regardless, Suger’s use of Dionysian thought introduced new justifications for the art program at St.-Denis and its symbolism.
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