Abbot Suger and the Doors of St. Denis: Should Churches be Aesthetically Pleasing?

Through construction of his new church at St. Denis in 1122, Abbot Suger is commonly thought as the catalyst for Gothic church architecture. Deeply criticized for the extravagance of the church, he ignored the critics and completed the project. He sought to employ architectural methods that mirrored the glory of God and sense of awe in religious experience. When completed he had these words inscribed on the church doors,

‘Whoever thou art, if thou meekest 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 its former submersion.’

And on the lintel:

‘Receive, O stern judge, the prayers of Thy Suger;
Grant that I be mercifully numbered among Thy own sheep.’[1]

I really admire the church architecture of the past and think we are missing something when we construct churches that mirror society instead of God. Many churches today look like over sized houses or undersized big-box retail stores. Very little thought is placed on purposeful aesthetics. Purposeful aesthetics in a divine context aspires to tell something about God through architecture, art, design, and layout. Few churches take this into account when constructing a new facility or revamping the old one. Most spend their money on volume space over ornate interest. Granted, concern for utility must be addressed; it would be pointless to have a architecturally beautiful church that proclaims purposeful aesthetics that is unusable. However, most do not even entertain how their church architecture could proclaim divine beauty or tell the glory of God. So to rescue myself from the hypothetical, let me suggest a few ways that any church could begin this progression. First, incorporate art into your church. I am not talking about those cheesy (sorry if you like them) pictures of Jesus that portray him as a 1960’s hippee. I am talking about images that would be found in an art gallery or museum– images that portray the divine and divine acts. Most churches have very little art in them, why not incorporate an art gallery the highlights Christian artists? Second, think theologically when arranging your building. Recently while in Louisville, I visited two labyrinths, one at the Louisville Seminary and the other at Church of the Epiphany. Walking through these allowed me to experience many things, but the most apparent thing was how it mirrored our journey through life. Sometimes I was really close to the center or the end, but still had a long way to go if I followed the path. This created a bit of anxiety and longing to complete the journey through the labyrinth. I am not suggesting everyone build a labyrinth (although they would make a great addition!). There are other ways to create the same idea. One might be constructing the entry to your church that give all who enter a journey through the entry a feeling of anticipation that ultimately results in them entering the worship area where they encounter images of the cross or other images that tell them Christ is with them. Another might be in arranging the worship area so that the focal point is centralized (most churches have many more than one). The ways to make a church aesthetically pleasing with a purpose is endless, but yet few consider it even a profitable discussion. In this age of visual consumption, purposeful aesthetics must be part of the conversation.

[1] Thiessen, Gesa Elsbeth. Theological Aesthetics: A Reader. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub, 2005, 115.


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