On June 11, 1144, new altar chapels were consecrated in the abbey church of Saint-Denis, just outside Paris. The church, burial place of the kings of France, is usually recognized as the first Gothic building -- with soaring vaults, arches pointing heavenward, and walls made transparent with glass and light. This chalice was used to celebrate the mass, its gems echoing the jewel-like colors streaming through stained glass. Both building and chalice reflect the philosophy of the church's abbot, Suger. For Suger, "the dull mind rises to truth through that which is material." Beauty could ravish and refresh the soul.
The chalice is a subtle blend of eastern and western influences. The cup itself was carved in Egypt during the second or first centuries B.C. from a single piece of sardonyx. Deep, elegant flutes open the stone's folded bands of color. The gold and gem-encrusted mounting was made at the behest of Suger. Most of the stones are later replacements, and only one of the original roundels on the base survives, that of Christ Pantokrator, as in the Byzantine tradition.
Suger was not only an energetic church administrator but one of the most powerful men in France, ruling as regent during the king's absence during the Second Crusade. His chalice, one of the treasures of the Middle Ages, survived destruction following the French Revolution and was made part of the French national collection. In 1804 it was stolen and smuggled eventually to England, concealed in a plaster cast of a statue.
Chalice of the Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis
Cup 2nd/1st century B.C.; mounting 1137-1140
MATERIAL: Sardonyx cup with heavily gilded silver mounting, adorned with filigrees set with stones, pearls, and glass insets
DIMENSIONS: h 18.4 cm (7 1/4 in.), top diameter 12.4 cm (4 7/8 in.)
COLLECTION: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Widener Collection
ACCESSION NUMBER: 1942.9.277