One of the richest Church treasuries was that housed at the Abbey Church of St Denis just outside of Paris. In 1706 by Dom Michel Félibien (Histoire de l'Abbaye Royale de Saint-Denys en France) produced a series of engravings that present a visual inventory of the rich collection of the treasury of St. Denis. Alison Stones, as a work in progress, has provided an extremely useful study of these illustrations and the treasury itself at her website dedicated to Medieval Art and Architecture (click on the St. Denis link in the "Under Construction" section). Since the treasury was dispersed or destroyed during the French Revolution, these illustrations provide us with critical documentation as to the original holdings. These images can be compared with Abbot Suger's De Administratione which documents the monastery during his tenure as abbot in the middle of the twelfth century. A fifteenth century painting of the Mass of St Gilles, depicting the great Golden Cross and the Altar Frontal of Charles the Bald is another critical document in the reconstruction of the treasury of St Denis.


XXXII. Concerning the Golden Cross

Had we been able, we would have insisted that the sacred, life-giving cross, healing banner of our savior's eternal victory, of which the apostle says, "God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of Christ" (Gal. 6:14), be adorned all the more gloriously inasmuch as it is "the sign of the Son of Man who will appear in the heavens" (Mtt. 24:30) at the end, not only to men but to angels, and we would have greeted it perpetually as did the apostle Andrew: "Hail, cross, dedicated to Christ's body and adorned with his members like pearls." Nevertheless, since we could not do as we wished, we wished to do as well as we could and, God providing, we worked to fulfill our plans. Thus, searching all about (personally and through our agents) for a large supply of precious pearls and gems,
preparing as costly a supply of gold and gems as we could find for such ornamentation, we called together the most experienced artisans from various places. Working cautiously and accurately, they were to exalt the venerable cross on its reverse side by the addition of these wondrous gems, while on the front, in sight of the sacrificing priest, they would display the sacred image of our lord and savior in remembrance of his suffering and as still suffering on the cross. Of course the blessed Denis had lain in that same spot for five hundred years and more, from Dagobert's time to our own.

We do not wish to pass in silence over one humorous yet noble miracle which the Lord displayed to us in this connection. Just when I was in need of gems and unable to purchase enough (for rarity makes them more expensive), monks from three abbeys belonging to two different orders - that is, from Citeaux, from another abbey of the same order, and from Fontevrault - entered our little room adjoining the church and offered for sale a greater supply of gems than we would have hoped to find in ten years. They had obtained them as alms from Count Theobold, who had received them through his brother King Stephen of England from the treasury of his uncle the late King Henry. Theobold had stored them up throughout his life in marvelous vessels. We, however, freed from the burden of searching for gems, thanked God and paid four hundred pounds for the whole collection, although they were worth a good deal more.

In order to perfect such a holy ornament, we added, not only these, but a great number of other expensive gems. If memory serves us correctly, we recall having applied around eighty marks of refined gold. Through the work of several Lotharingian goldsmiths -sometimes five, sometimes seven - we were able to have completed, in barely two years, the pedestal adorned with the four evangelists, the pillar upon which the sacred image stands, the story of the savior with testimonies of allegories from the Old Testament indicated on it, and the capital above which renders wondrously the death of our Lord.

Hastening to exalt the decoration of such a fine and holy instrument, the mercy of our savior brought us Pope Eugenius to celebrate holy Easter as is the custom with popes visiting Gaul, honoring the sacred apostolate of blessed Denis just as we had seen his predecessors Calixtus and Innocent do before him. He solemnly consecrated the crucifix on that day. From the title "Of the True Cross, which exceeds Each and Every Pearl," he assigned to it a portion from his own chapel. Publicly, in the presence of all, by the sword of the blessed Peter and the sword of the Holy Spirit, he anathematized whoever should steal anything from this place or recklessly raise his hand against it; and we had this anathema inscribed at the foot of the cross.

We hastened to decorate the main altar of the blessed Denis, which had only a beautiful and sumptuous frontal panel from the time of Charles the Bald, the third emperor; for at this very altar we had been dedicated to the monastic life. We had it entirely covered, adding gold panels on each side. And a fourth, even more precious one, so that the whole altar would appear to be gold all the way around. On the sides we placed two candlesticks of King Louis, the son of Philip, so that they would not be stolen on some occasion. We added hyacinths, emeralds, and various other precious gems, ordering a diligent search for others which could be added. These are the verses on the panels: On the right side,

The Abbot Suger put up these altar panels
In addition to the one already given by King Charles.
Make the unworthy worthy by your forgiveness, Virgin
Let the fountain of mercy wash away the sins of king and abbot.

On the left side,

If an impious man should plunder this excellent altar,
Let him perish along with Judas, equally damned.

The rear panel, a product of marvelous workmanship and lavish expenditure - for the barbarian artists were more lavish than our own - we exalted with a relief that was marvelous in both form and material so that certain people might say, "The workmanship surpassed the material." Much of what we had acquired and an even greater number of previously-owned ornaments which we were afraid of losing - for example, a gold chalice with a mutilated foot and several other things - we had fastened there. And since the variety of materials - the gold, gems and pearls - cannot be understood easily through visual examination bereft of verbal description, we crowned this work, which discloses its meaning only to the literate and shines with the radiance of delightful allegories, with a written explanation. So that these allegories might be clearly understood, we affixed verses explaining them.

Crying out with a loud voice the people shout "Hosanna" to Christ.
The true victim given in the meal bears all.
He who saves all on the cross hastens to bear the cross.
The flesh of Christ seals the promise to Abraham's offspring.
Melchizadech makes an offering because Abraham defeats the enemy.
They who seek Christ with the cross bear a cluster of grapes
on a staff.

When, out of affection for the Church, we contemplate these new and old ornaments, seeing that admirable cross of St. Eloi, the lesser crosses, and that incomparable ornament commonly called "the crest" all placed on the golden altar, I say, sighing right down to my heart, "Every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, the topaz, and the jaspar, the chrysolite and the onyx, and the beryl, the sapphire and the carbuncle, and the emerald" (Ez. 28:13). Those familiar with the properties of gems note to their astonishment that no type except the carbuncle is lacking here, but rather all abound in great number.

Thus sometimes when, because of my delight in the beauty of the house of God, the multicolor loveliness of the gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation, transporting me from material to immaterial things, has persuaded me to examine the diversity of holy virtues, then I seem to see myself existing on some level, as it were, beyond our earthly one, neither completely in the slime of earth nor completely in the purity of heaven. By the gift of God I can be transported in an anagogical manner from this inferior level to that superior one....

To me, I confess, it always has seemed right that the most expensive things should be used above all for the administration of the holy eucharist. If golden vessels, vials and mortars were used to collect "the blood of goats or calves or the red heifer, how much more" should gold vases, precious stones and whatever is most valuable among created things be set out with continual reverence and full devotion "to receive the blood of Jesus Christ" (Heb. 9:1 3f). Certainly neither we nor our possessions are fit to perform this function. Even if by a new creation our substance should be changed into that of the holy cherubim and seraphim it would still offer an insufficient and unworthy service for so great and ineffable a victim. Nevertheless, we have such a great propitiation for our sins.

To be sure, those who criticize us argue that holy mind, pure heart and faithful intention should suffice for this task. These are, we agree, the things that matter most; yet we profess that we should also serve God with the external ornaments of sacred vessels, in all internal purity and in all external nobility, and nowhere is this to be done as much as in the service of the holy sacrifice. For it is incumbent upon us in every case to serve our redeemer in the most fitting way for in all things, without exception, he has not refused to provide for us, has united our nature with his in a single, admirable individual, and "setting us on his right hand" he has promised "that we will truly possess his kingdom" (Mtt. 25:33f.) He is our lord who "lives and reigns forever" (Tobit 9:11; Rev. 1:18, etc.).