The Scandal of the Incarnation’s Particularity (and the perils of academic theology)

Council of Chalcedon
Council of Chalcedon

The other day, I came across Towards a Feminist Christology by Julie Hopkins on the new books table in the Divinity library here. In an of itself, I don’t suppose feminist theology is any worse than any other particular vision of theology. The problems arise when people, rather critiquing theology or doing theology from a feminist perspective, seek to create a theology that is inherently feminist and that solves feminist problems.

Theology is thinking about God, and therefore transcends all barriers. The job of the theologian is to find the Truth and communicate it. But academic theology can often go astray seeking instead to apply philosophy to Christian issues or sociology to the Almighty or calling Christian philosophy theology or confusing anthropology with theology. Academia may, in fact, be the least hospitable environment for true theology to thrive because of the drive to create new things and publish them on a regular basis.

And so Hopkins challenges, in a mere six pages (I think), the Chalcedonian Definition (my translation here) of Christ’s dual nature, reducing it to, ‘fully god, fully man.’ Her first critique is that this is a decidedly sexist vision of the Incarnate Christ. I suppose it would be, if that were what the Fathers at Chalcedon actually said.

In fact, what the Chalcedonian Definition says in the criticised phrase is, theon aléthós kai anthrópon aléthós — truly God and truly a human being. We can always ask ourselves if ancient authors, when they wrote anthrópos or homo meant ‘human being regardless of gender’ or if they were often thinking of ‘male men’, but the word anthrópos refers to a human being of either gender. And throughout the Chalcedonian Definition itself, all the terms used to refer to Christ’s human nature are derived from anthrópos, not anér, the word for ‘man.’

Leo’s Tomus ad Flavianum is similar, using homo, basically the Latin equivalent of anthrópos.

Thus, the Chalcedonian Definition is not sexist.

I should probably stop there, but Hopkins did not (alas). Citing some other feminist theologians as well as Patristics scholar Frances Young, she maintains that the Fathers compromised the Gospel with Platonic dualism, thus leading to the tortured Christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries. Whether the Fathers did compromise, to what extent, and why are all debatable issues.

What I can say is this, even without the question of dualism arising or the concern about impassibility, the question of how on earth a man could be God would have been a thorny question, and it would have arisen through the centuries of meditative exposition of the Scriptures anyway — so something like the Chalcedonian Definition would have been formed (although some people are leaning towards the position that, without Leo’s orchestration of Chalcedon, the formulation would have been more conservative Cyrillian [Mono-/Miaphysite] than Leo’s Augustinian vision).

Nonetheless, even dispensing with ideas that proclaim the weakness of the Church’s credal statements from Nicaea to Chalcedon — tainted by pagan philosophy as the appear to be — Hopkins brings up a decidedly modern (postmodern? contemporary? I dunno) concern. How can we discuss the Incarnation of the divine in the feminine?

My response: In short, we cannot.

Annunciation to the BVM, observe the Holy Spirit descending
Annunciation to the BVM

The Incarnation of the Divine Person as Jesus Christ is an unrepeatable historical event with cosmic significance. The actual Incarnation is the taking-on of human flesh by the Almighty. All human flesh is gendered. All human flesh is particular. In order for Christ to save all of us, he had to be one of us. The general significance of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reigning in glory, comes from the particularity.

Jesus is not embodied humanity in some general way, although some Unitarian website I saw about a year ago thought that’s what Chalcedon teaches. He is a particular human — a man. And he lived and wrought wonders and taught great things, things recorded for us in the Gospels. He died a criminal’s death and rose the Victorious Saviour. He ascended into Heaven.

By living a ‘normal’ human life, Jesus recapitulated the Garden. He reversed the curse through obedience to the Father.

If somehow one were to argue that Incarnation is necessary from General or Natural Revelation (or whatever you call it), one could say that the Divine Being could become Incarnate in a woman. However, those things that make true, Christian theology Christian are the revelation and the tradition that inform us that when the Divine Person became flesh, it was as the Man, Jesus of Nazareth.

Yet God became man that man might become God, right? (Theosis, as some call it.)

Well, then. Think on this, if you wish to see the Divine in the human plane of the feminine.

After 40 days living His resurrected life amongst the Apostles, the God-Man Jesus returned to Heaven. As a result, his particularity can become general. Whereas before he was only with certain followers at certain places and certain times, now Jesus, God Himself, can be with any followers at any places and any times. With all of us at once. He has promised to be with us in a special way through communion, but I think we can find Him elsewhere.

And when we find Christ, God, Trinity, we can find union with the Divine in a way that is so intimate that the Scriptures — our first point of reference in doing true theology — can only describe it as being like a marriage. We have all become Christ’s bride.

The Divine Persons are not feminine. They transcend gender as a Trinity. However, their transcendence of gender makes them equally available to all. Therefore, we need not worry over the Incarnation of God in the feminine. God came as a man, but can return to any of us at any time, whether male or female.

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Read the Fathers!

The world of Patristics on the internet is always interesting, and today I learned of an exciting development that I fully endorse. Over at Read the Fathers, some people are organising an online community to go through a seven-year cycle of readings of the Fathers that will take you through most of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF) series.

You are not committed to use the sawdusty versions of ANF and NPNF (but they are available free through the Christian Classics Ethereal Library), for the organisers have kindly let us know book.chapter.verse for each day’s readings, so you can find a better translation with more up-to-date notes based on a more recent critical edition for each of the Fathers. E.g. for Augustine, grab the Oxford World’s Classics translation of the Confessions. For Tertullian, a lot of it is as yet not updated, but the Apology and De Spectaculis are available in a Loeb volume. And, if my life follows the swiftest trajectory possible, by the time we reach Leo, you can read my translation of the letters! 😉

The commitment is seven pages per day. A lot, but not really. My fun reading is often 10 to 100 pages per day. And this will be far more profitable if more time consuming than briefer devotionals such as the (recommended) Ancient Christian Devotional from IVP. Here you’ll read entire works of the Fathers and get into the messy stuff — but through bite-sized, daily readings. This is why it will take seven years.

If you fall behind, pick up with that day’s readings (or at least a reasonable starting point). The organisers recommend you don’t play catch up, otherwise you will probably lose heart and abandon it all together. My former priest says the same thing about reading the Bible.

I cannot recommend this idea enough. The challenges and wonders and mind-stretching ideas that come from reading the Fathers are exactly what the pocket scroll is about. I started this blog not only to have a place to work through some ideas but as a place to encourage others to meet with the texts that have formed the Christian faith and made it what it is today to help bring them to a place of deeper faith in God, greater awe before Him, fuller strength in the face of trouble, truer holiness in a licentious society.

So go Read the Fathers.

Untaming God: How the Fathers can help save modern Protestants from small theology

A friend recently posted on Facebook the famous passage from C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

I would argue that today’s Protestant, especially the evangelical variety (speaking from within that tradition) has a tendency to tame, to reduce God and the Christian world. God is made smaller and domesticated, taken from His place as the Holy One (and therefore Wholly Other) to my best friend or my genie or the Dude Who gets me into Heaven or whatev.

I realise that’s a crude caricature, and it certainly isn’t true of all evangelical Christians. But I do think we have a minimalising tendency that can be harmful at some levels. For example, the endless war with Rome over justification by faith alone through grace alone or the inner-Prot fights over predestination can obscure the fullness of the Christian life and the bigness of our untame God.

For example, I was recently involved in a discussion about early monasticism, and people were displeased with the attempts by the Desert Fathers and other ascetics to live in the Adamic state not only in terms of walking with God in the cool of the evening but also in terms of diet and relationship with the natural world (using some ideas from Peter Brown, Body and Society, which I’ve never read). Where, wondered the Scottish Presbyterian deacon (not anyone from my church, don’t worry), is Christ in this? Didn’t he take our sin away? Are they not aware that the price has been paid?

I proceeded to explain that the discussion of this-life holiness is not necessarily the same as next-life reward. Christ has paid the price, yes, but these men were concerned how we live as a result. And if Christ has removed sin, we can once again life in the state of Adam, trusting in God’s grace.

The tendency revealed here is the fear that whenever Christians start discussing how we should live in practical details, we will forget justification by faith for some reason. Theology and the Christian life has been reduced to a paltry caricature of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Cheap grace, rightly derided by Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, is a short step away.

Another manifestation is the quest for bare minimum Christianity. By this I mean what is the least I need do for salvation? What is the least I need do for the Eucharist or Baptism to ‘count’? What is the simplest version of the Scriptures? While this can help strip away things like, say, papal indulgences and such, it can also lead to non-sacramental visions of Christianity, such as contemporary Salvation Army practices.

The Fathers can help. They’ve certainly helped me. While I’m not yet an expert on the entire patristic period of Christianity, I’ve read a lot of them and a lot about them, from the Apostolic Fathers to St John of Damascus (saint of the week here) and the Venerable Bede (saint of the week here), with focuses (foci?) on the early ascetics from St Antony to St Benedict and on the fifth century.

These readings have helped regrow my vision of Almighty God and the Christian life (alongside dabbling in mediaeval mystics, of course). The high-flying world of Trinitarian thought in the Cappadocians and its modern explication by Christopher A Hall in Learning Theology with the Church Fathers and by John Zizioulas in Being As Communion has helped me stand in awe before a God Who is so much bigger than ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ Christianity. Such theology can bring you to your knees and truly worship in Spirit and in truth — I would argue better than any Anglo-Catholic incense or low-church contemporary music ever can.

And for those who are rightly concerned about the intellectualising tendency that oft comes with high Trinitarian theology, the fifth-century has helped me enter into the messy bits, too. It all sounds so academic to say that Christ is one person with two natures, fully God and fully human, the God-man. But when you start seeing how this plays out in the sermons of Leo the Great (saint of the week here), you see that this means that God entered into the muck of our sordid lives, into a world of pain and sorrow, taking on the form of a slave, associating with the poorest of the poor. The ethical consequences of the two-natured Christ? Give to the poor and love abundantly; never despise those who share the same nature as the God you worship.

This is not minimalist theology but maximalist theology that takes hold of us and makes us ready to receive the God of Life Himself and be transformed as a result.

The ascetic fathers also help transform us. They remind us that we are called to pray continually, without ceasing. Evagrius Ponticus declares to us that contemplation of the Holy Trinity is the highest calling of the Christian; he also gives us some practical advice about how to fight temptation. We are given thoughts on our own thoughts and how to control them, how to assess our dreams, how to live day by day. We are shown a radical call to forsake this world and live for the next. We are called to help the poor. We are called to live humbly with our fellow brothers and sisters. We are called to radical obedience to the commands of our Lord Christ.

I’ve spoken before about why evangelicals do read the Fathers (here and here and here). This, I believe, is why they should — to rediscover the untame God, wild, powerful, unstoppable, majestic, glorious, awesome.

What did Constantine actually do?

Statue of Constantine in front of York Minster

Today, for the second and final time this season, I volunteered at Edinburgh’s Christian Heritage Centre. I was talking with a lovely and interested couple from New Orleans about the religious history of Scotland, including lovely things like the pulpit at St Columba’s, and less lovely things, like killing of Covenanters.

I knew the woman was not necessarily in step with my vision of Christian history when she remarked, upon seeing that Columba (saint of the week here) had been given the isle of Iona, that that was where Mary Magdalene and her children fled when people were trying to kill them, ‘according to the legends.’ I said that such would have been news to Columba, who was the first Christian on the island in recorded history when it was given to him as a mission base by King Bridei of the Picts upon Bridei’s conversion.

Later, after they had viewed the entire display, we chatted in the sanctuary of S Columba’s. In the midst of a very interesting conversation, this lovely woman unloaded the shattering idea that Constantine (saint of the week here) ruined everything. He wanted the union of Church and State, and he said Jesus was God, and he set the canon of the New Testament, burning the other texts.

I said, ‘Constantine didn’t set the canon of Scripture.’

She gave me that knowing look people who don’t know Church History give me, saying, ‘Yes, he did.’

‘Well, it’s not in Eusebius.’

‘Who’s Eusebius?’

‘He’s –‘

‘What about all those other things, like the Dead Sea Scrolls?’

‘The Dead Sea Scrolls are Hebrew; they’re Jewish texts, not Christian. The Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi are all in Coptic and very late. The canon of Scripture was already basically determined by Constantine’s day. The disputes at Nicaea were not between Gnostics and the Orthodox; they were disputes within the community of the ‘proto-orthodox’.’

That last bit probably didn’t help. What I meant was….

Well, we need the swirl of disinformation sorted out first. From what this lady was saying, I think the swirl is as follows. Jesus and Mary M were married and got it on big time. The so-called ‘Gnostics’ knew this, but the ‘proto-orthodox’ suppressed it to give more power to celibate bishops. The Gnostics represent the true stream of Christianity, and they did not believe that Jesus was truly ‘God’ the way we think of God, the Creator. This idea was something thought up by Constantine when he united Church and State, and called the council of Nicaea to make it official. At Nicaea he burnt the Gnostic scriptures.

I think this is part of what is going on. I think this mostly originates from Dan Brown and books like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Whenever you challenge people on this, they tell you that you believe the official version and have had the wool pulled over your eyes.

But here we go, anyway. Disbelieve me if you wish.

First: The Canon of Scripture. This was established slowly over a long period of time. By Irenaeus’ day, we have the fourfold Gospel. Since most of the documents people such as the Jesus Seminars and Elaine Pagels are trying to foist upon us qualify at some level as ‘Gospels’, by the mid- to late second century, the Gnostic Gospels have been excluded by certain groups, such as those represented by Irenaeus, already. This trend seems to continue throughout the third century, visible in the earliest papyri and New Testament quotations in pre-Constantinian Fathers. Nowhere in any of the sparse documents relating to Nicaea do they establish the canon of Scripture.

This is because the people there all agreed on that. This was the problem. The people at Nicaea are the descendants of the people in the Gnostic debates we would think of as ‘proto-orthodox’ or ‘catholic’ — the theological descendants of Irenaeus, Justin, Clement, Origen. They just happen to disagree on a particular point; it is an in-house debate. The Gnostics and their writings do not figure into the Nicene debate at all. Arius and those who agreed with him were interpreting the same set of documents as Athanasius and those who agreed with him.

Constantine made everyone agree to the creed of Nicaea, but may not have even agreed with it himself. His deathbed baptism was at the hands of an ‘Arian’, Eusebius of Nicomedia. And his biography is given us by someone else who sympathises with the ‘Arian’ party in many ways, Eusebius of Caesarea. The Nicene victory does not actually come until 381, under Theodosius I with the theologising of the Cappadocians. Given the failure of other imperial attempts to establish their orthodoxy in the events beginning with Nestorius in 428 and leading to Chalcedon, the Henotikon, the Acacian Schism, Constantinople II, monothelitism, Constantinople III, and an enormous schism in eastern Christianity — I would wager that people actually agreed with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (my translation here).

This leaves Jesus as God. The idea is certainly not Constantine’s, and certainly pre-dates him. It is visible in varying forms and levels of intensity as early as the Gospel of John, and in Irenaeus and Melito of Sardis and Clement of Alexandria and Origen Tertullian and probably others I’ve not read, as well as Alexander of Alexandria, whose shock at Arius’ response was the trigger to it all. It is not an idea nobody believed, and, as noted above, was not exactly foisted upon everyone else. Indeed, Athanasius’ intensity for his belief in his version of ‘Jesus is God’ got him in trouble during Constantine’s reign.

This leaves Constantine’s alleged union of Church and State. The shortest response is, Why would an Emperor want to unite the Roman state with a persecuted minority? Yes, Constantine — for whatever reasons — converted. It seems to have worked well for him. But converting back to paganism would later work for Emperor Julian. The church was neither wealthy nor powerful. Furthermore, outside of getting people to sign on to Nicaea, its workings seem to have been left alone by Constantine. Any of his interventions, such as between ‘Catholics’ and Donatists in the West, were done at the invitation of the Church, and done as a last ditch attempt to make things work. Furthermore, in the 200s, at least one Christian community appealed to a pagan emperor against their bishop.

Furthermore, all of the state ceremonial and cult persisted during Constantine’s reign. And paganism was not outlawed for decades, and even then seems to have continued well into the reign of Justinian two hundred years later.

Whatever Constantine may have screwed up, he did not ‘decide’ Jesus was God, he did not unite Church and state, and he did not touch the Gnostic gospels at all. If we wish to vilify the man, find the right reasons — murdering his son and wife, for example.

“Orthodoxy” and “Gnosticism” in Post-Nicene Egypt: Thinking on the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” and Others

If you sit down with a history of the Early Church or patristic doctrine such as Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church or J N D Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, a picture emerges of an Egypt where before Nicaea the proto-orthodox look to have won out over the ‘Gnostics’ — ‘Arianism’ being a debate between factions within proto-orthodoxy, indeed amongst Origenists (see my post here).

Athanasius of Alexandria was the champion and forger of the Nicene cause. Antony was revered by him and many of the Fathers for his holiness. The monks of Egypt, with whom Athanasius hid in exile, were notoriously orthodox, doing the bidding of the unflinchingly orthodox Theophilus in desecrating pagan temples. Cyril is one of the ‘orthodox’ party’s strongest voices, as is his contemporary monastic fellow Shenoute of Atripe.

Egypt seems to be very much orthodox, especially by 381. And, once you’ve wrapped your mind around the Chalcedonian debate, perhaps they never even stopped (see my post on ‘Monophysites’).

Archaeology has been telling us a new story, perhaps a parallel one. From the sands of Egypt, most notably Nag Hammadi, have come a wealth of ‘Gnostic’ documents — frequently called ‘Gospels’, largely in Coptic. These documents are often from the fourth century, as is the momentarily-famous ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’. Some are possibly later, such as the Books of Yu, themselves possibly representing an entirely different mystery religion of its own.

Having read Hurtado’s take on the business-card sized papyrus on Jesus’ wife and that of Gathercole, as well as Dr King’s own cautious statements in the flamboyant news reports, this is a document wherein Jesus mentions ‘My wife’ (or ‘my woman’). This may bring us into the realm of Gnostic allegory. It may bring us into a text trying to legimitate Christian marriage by saying Jesus was married (a point on which our earliest sources are silent).

What it brings us into is ‘Gnosticism’, a term applied to an amorphous group of religious beliefs and practices that are often related in some way to Christianity, sometimes claiming to represent the true tradition thereof, but not always, and not always necessarily related to the Church itself at all (as with one possible reading of the Books of Yu).

From what I’ve seen, by Nicaea, the mainstream or proto-orthodox Church — the institutional Christianity from which all of today’s churches descend — is not necessarily grappling with Gnosticism and Gnostics. They seem to have at times had their books, as described by Eusebius, when bishops hand over heretical scriptures to the Roman authorities. And their are, I understand, certain Valentinian influences on the letters of St Antony the Great and possibly elsewhere amongst the Desert Fathers.

But these appear to be just traces. Gnosticism seems not to be leaving a great impact upon the wider Church in the fourth century, unlike in the second when Irenaeus wrote his Against the Heresies in opposition to certain of these groups.

But they were still around. They left us papyri in the desert. Where did they go? How did they interact with their ‘orthodox’ neighbours? Did they eventually disappear through assimilation into mainstream Christianity after the official sponsoring thereof by the Emperors?

I don’t know. Do any of you?

Aquinas vs modern historical-critical Biblical study

I recently polished off Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae: A Reader’s Guide by Stephen J Loughlin. In discussing Aquinas’ unfinished Tertia Pars and its discussion of Our Lord’s earthly life, Loughlin says:

The second section deals with the course of His life while in the world (Questions 40-45), treating of the manner of His life, His temptation in the desert, the manner of and questions related to His teaching, the mircales He worked considered both generally and specifically, and lastly His transfiguration. Kerr notes the elementary nature of these descriptions, particularly in light of ‘modern historical-critical reconstructions of the life of the man who figures in the Gospels,’ and that this section of the Summa is of very limited interest to theologians today. (291)

This is all Questions 40-45 of the Tertia Pars get in Loughlin’s very fine introduction to Aquinas. His treatment of Aquinas’ account of creation and the order of the world is similar — science has proven Thomas wrong on this point, so he’s not much use to us anymore.

I disagree wholeheartedly with this approach. Having read over Questions 40-45, I think they are important for our understanding of Aquinas and of a theological reading of Scripture. With the exception of N T Wright up at St Andrews and, at times, Larry Hurtado in Edinburgh, very rarely do ‘modern historical-critical reconstructions of the life of the man who figures in the Gospels’ and other products of modern historical-critical Biblical Studies give us a theologically-informed or theology-informing reading of the life of Christ.

Thomas Aquinas does that. Therefore, sparse perhaps as his reading of Christ’s life is, lacking as it certainly is in many details of life in the first-century Eastern Mediterranean, the theological way of reading Scripture demonstrated here is of interest to the modern student of theology, who can take Aquinas and supplement his understand of Jesus and first-century Judaism and thereby produce a fuller account.

Furthermore, historical theology is not always about what is most useful for ‘today’. It is about what was believed and discussed then. A good introduction should make the odd bits or superseded bits of an ancient philosophical or theological text interesting to a modern reader, whose understanding of astronomy or of particular historical details may differ from that of the author at hand. This is what C S Lewis’ superlative work The Discarded Image does with the mediaeval worldview at large.

While Loughlin, by and large, makes Aquinas’ major and most influential arguments accessible to a contemporary audience, this is one moment where he fails at the task of producing a helpful introduction. Nonetheless, this book is recommended to anyone interested in grappling with the monstrously large task of reading the Summa Theologiae.

For a full review of this book and its many merits, I refer you to The Medieval Review.

The Spirituality of Gothic Architecture: Fiat Lux!

Somewhere in the late fifth or very early sixth century, someone in the Levant, in Syria perhaps, composed a number of treatises on mystical theology using the pseudonym ‘Dionysius the Areopagite.’ The forgery worked, and for centuries people believed that these texts were by the convert of St. Paul.

Pseudo-Dionysius, as this author is known, became very popular, with translations from the Greek into Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Coptic, and was read widely throughout the various churches and communions of the Middle Ages; his popularity only waned in the modern era, when the hoax was revealed on the one hand, Protestants like Martin Luther declared him unbiblical on another, and – on the third hand – scholars detected and discussed his ‘Neo-Platonism’, a charge many a Christian theologian has had a hard time shaking.

The spiritual theology of Pseudo-Dionysius is about the glory and majesty of the Creator God whose very nature and power overflowed into the creation of the universe. God Himself is the light, and our goal, our telos as His creatures is our return to Him, our ascent and encounter with the celestial hierarchies. Our return, our reditus, is achieved through asceticism and mystical contemplation.

The Christian pedigree of these ideas lies within the trajectory of Origen-Evagrius-Cassian (as so much does!) with similarities in the Syriac Liber Graduum and St. John Climacus. The imagery of exitusreditus is an integral part of the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, and Dionysian spirituality is the cornerstone of St. Gregory Palamas’ theology. But more about them later. For more on Pseudo-Dionysius, check out The Catholic Encyclopedia.

As stated above, Dionysian spiritual theology was very popular very quickly. He is quoted by Mar Severus of Antioch, the Monophysite patriarch almost right away (if you do not believe these works to be by St. Paul’s disciple), and is soon translated into Latin. His popularity in the West increases, no doubt due to the prestige attached to the name as well as the importance of many of his doctrines, such as the incomprehensibility of God, and his similarities to the popular monastic writer St. John Cassian.

And so, in the ninth century, Hincmar of Reims, a scheming, strategising Carolingian bishop with a large library at his disposal, a knowledge of canon law, and a desire to see the fortunes of the western Frankish realms increase, took up Pseudo-Dionysius’ cause. Already the easy confusion of people named Dionysius had probably begun; Hincmar skilfully accelerated the process.

St. Denis, 16th-c statue I saw in the crypt of his basilique

The Areopagite was merged with a martyred bishop of Lutetia (Paris), who had died there around 250 (en français il s’appelle St. Denis). St. Denis of Paris was a martyr of the mid-third century who, along with his companions, was beheaded by the Romans on Monmartre (Latin: Mons Martyrum), today in the North of Paris. Upon being beheaded, he took up his head and walked to the site of the future basilica and declared that he was to be buried there.

What we know for certain is that there was a Christian church on the site since at least the fourth century and that there seems to have been some sort of crypt beneath. The church was rebuilt in the Carolingian era and again later on when the abbey that came to be connected with it increased its fortunes through royal associations – starting with Dagobert I (d. 639), the majority of the kings of what we know think of as France were buried there.

The Basilique St-Denis, Paris

Eventually, the abbey and its Romanesque basilica got a new abbot, Abbot Suger (abbot 1122-1151). Suger, it seems, was a reader of his abbey’s patron, St. Denis (the Areopagite, of course; that this is a likely possibility, read this article about twelfth-century Dionysian influences). And the cornerpiece of Dionysian theology is light. God is light (is Christ not the light of the world?). Therefore, Suger rebuilt the apse with a double ambulatory as well as the chevet. The apse of a church is the round bit that sticks out the back and frequently houses the holy table; an ambulatory is a space that allows you to walk around the back of the apse; a double ambulatory is one such that has two aisles, with side chapels radiating out from the apse where priests can say private masses. The chevet is the entryway that you pass through before the narthex and nave.

What Suger created was the oldest existing Gothic architecture. When I visited St. Denis, a request was made to explain what makes it Gothic. The appellation has nothing to do with Goths, first off (it is a Renaissance denigration). Gothic architecture is light and airy, whereas its predecessor, Romanesque (Norman), is still heavy, blocky, dense – although late Romanesque such as Durham Cathedral is moving towards the airiness of Gothic.

Romanesque Basilica Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (my photo)

The most important feature for this airiness is the pointed arch. Pointed arches enable the builders to span wider spaces. Thus, we get such places as the majority-Gothic Duomo in Milan and York Minster that have very high ceilings and very wide naves. The Basilica Sant-Ambrogio in Milan, on the other hand, cannot span as great a distance, being a tenth/eleventh-century Romanesque construction. The Duomo is the largest interior space I’ve ever been in that wasn’t a hockey arena, if that gives you an idea of what Gothic can do.

These pointed arches bear the majority of the weight of the roof and structure. Therefore, walls of glass become a possibility. When perhaps the walls alone are not enough, another Gothic innovation is the flying buttress. Flying buttress are supports on the exterior of the building that bear its weight almost as half arches, thus not casting shadows and saving light. The double ambulatory at St. Denis has flying buttresses outside.

The Apse of Basilique St. Denis (my photo)

As a result of these two innovations, Abbot Suger’s double ambulatory is radiated with light on all sides, as the sun shines through the coloured panes and across the altars arrayed there. We often have an image of the Middle Ages as a dark, grim world. Gothic architecture defies the darkness and grimness of stone and allows God’s first recorded words to be realised in the space of worship – Fiat lux.

Eventually, in the mid-1200s, the Romanesque nave of St. Denis was replaced with Gothic architecture as well, with the addition of transepts (imagine a medieval church as a cross – transepts are the arms) and a renovation of the upper portions of the apse. The apse is almost all window now, and the transepts are adorned with rose windows, filling the space with the beauty of light:

Nave of the Basilique St. Denis (my photo)
Rose Window, North Transept of Basilique St. Denis (my photo)

Light, light, light. I write as though this is all that Gothic architecture cares about. To a degree, it is. My first encounter with a real Gothic cathedral was St. Sophia’s in Nicosia, Cyprus. Today it is a mosque (I found it amusing that my first Gothic church was a mosque). The walls are whitewashed and there is no ecclesiastical furniture, let alone statues, grotesques, frescoes, or mosaics, to adorn it. But it is a large, bright, cleanly-lit space.

Some of the architects of the Gothic Revival in the nineteenth century believed that Gothic architecture was that form of architecture best suited to capturing and most devoted to embracing light. I think they may have been right.

For more images of Basilique St-Denis, click here. There is also a Flickr Group called Gothic Churches. To contrast, check out the other Flickr Group Romanesque Architecture and Paintings.