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May 2004 - Suger's Treasures

Situated just north of Paris, within a 20-minute metro ride from the Saint Lazare station along the number 13 line, lies the basilica of Saint Denis. Today a quiet repository for some 70 royal funerary monuments, the basilica is intimately associated with the turbulent history of France and the French monarchy.

Abbot Suger, the ecclesiastical administrator of the Saint Denis abbey and basilica from 1121 to 1151, strove to enhance the prestige of his abbey and to increase his influence in royal affairs. He was counselor of two kings, Louis VI and Louis VII, and regent of France for two years during the absence of Louis VII, from 1147 to 1149.

A skillful and ambitious administrator, Suger set about to reform the abbey and rebuild the basilica, which had fallen into decay by the time that he was elected abbot. He also set out to increase its wealth and to make its treasury one of the richest in Europe, rivaling that of the Saint Sophie basilica in Constantinople.

Among the many precious works that he commissioned for the treasury, a number have survived the ravages of time and war. Today, almost 900 years after they were created, three of them can be viewed together at the Louvre: Queen Eleanor’s Vase, the Sardonyx Ewer and Suger’s Eagle.

[Eleanor’s vase]The Eleanor vase is crafted of rock crystal. The vase probably came from Iran, and is thought to date from the 6th or 7th century. Sugar commissioned goldsmiths to add a neck and a base, both decorated with filigree, pearls and precious stones. Champlevé enamel, decorated with fleurs-de-lis, is thought to have been added to the neck in the 14th century, probably to replace lost stones. On the base are inscribed two verses in Latin that indicate that Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine gave the vase to King Louis VII, who in turn presented it to Abbot Suger.

[Suger’s Ewer]Another work, the Sardonyx Ewer or “Suger’s Ewer” is a jug cut from a single piece of brown chalcedony (sardonyx) and mounted with a gilt silver neck, spout, handle and base. The neck and handle are studded with precious stones and pearls. The chalcedony comes from Byzantium and is thought to date from the 7th century. The design of the metalwork is similar to the Eleanor vase and was probably created by the same goldsmiths. The ewer was used for sacramental wine, and its base bears the following inscription: “Because we must make sacrifices to God with gold and precious stone, I, Suger, offer this vase to the Lord.”

[Suger’s Eagle]The third vessel is “Suger’s Eagle”. This is a porphyry vase dating from the time of ancient Egypt or Imperial Rome, which Suger had mounted with an eagle’s head and spread wings, and with a base formed by the eagle’s tail and claws. The resulting work, in gilded silver and niello inlay, is a magnificent image of a menacing bird of prey. The inscription reads “This stone is worthy of being mounted in gold and precious stone. It was made of marble, but thus mounted, is more precious than marble.”

Although Suger was criticized by some, particularly by the austere Bernard, founder of the abbey of Clairvaux, for amassing sumptuous treasures at his basilica, he defended his belief that gold and precious objects help man exalt his spirit. Visitors to the Louvre will not want to miss the opportunity to view these three splendid vessels from Suger’s treasury in room 2 of the Richelieu wing. Other magnificent pieces from the treasury, including the sword used for coronations, called “Charlemagne’s sword” or the “Joyeuse”, are also on display here.

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2004