The Ark of the Covenant (Quadriga Aminadab), detail from The Allegories of Saint Paul window by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

The Ark of the Covenant (Quadriga Aminadab), detail from The Allegories of Saint Paul window, 12th century, Stained glass, Abbey Church, Saint-Denis, France, Photo: Bulloz © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

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A More Perfect Tent

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Robin Griffith-Jones

In the 1140s Abbot Suger rebuilt and beautified the Abbey of St Denis, outside Paris. Suger himself wrote an account of the work. Among its wonders were the new stained-glass windows. Here is the most famous.

The lowest of the five roundels was once the scene of St Paul turning a mill. (This is now the middle roundel.) Suger explained: ‘One [window], urging us onward from the material to the immaterial, shows the apostle Paul turning a mill and the prophets carrying sacks to the mill’ (Suger 1996: section 34). From the edible but hard outer bran Paul extracts inner grains of spiritual truth.

None of the roundels shows a story from the Bible; each, instead, combines biblical and theological motifs into a single stylized, emblematic, and revelatory scene. They are following the example set by Hebrews 9, in its progress from the material to the immaterial Holy of Holies.

Once at the window’s centre (and now at its top), the most startling of all Suger’s images brings old and new ‘Ark’ together. Beside the scene are two Latin verses:

From the Ark of the Covenant the altar is set up with the cross of Christ;
It is under a greater Covenant that Life wishes to die.

Beneath is the simple phrase: CHARIOT OF AMINADAB. This is a reference to the Song of Solomon 6:9, ‘My soul has troubled me on account of the chariots of Aminadab’.

Aminadab had helped manage the joyful transport of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem at King David’s command (1 Chronicles 15:10; cf. Abinadab’s cart, 1 Samuel 7:1–2; 1 Chronicles 13:6). The twelfth-century commentator Honorius (Expositio in Cantica canticorum) interpreted Song of Solomon 6:9 as follows: the Shunamite woman who is speaking represents the Synagogue as she will be when at last she is led by the Gospel to belief in Christ; the chariot of Aminadab represents the Gospels, its four wheels the Evangelists.

For Suger as for Honorius, everything that was opaque in the Old Covenant is being revealed and fulfilled in the New; and above all, the character of the Holy of Holies, its priest and offering.

  

References

Abbot Suger. 1996. On What was Done in his Administration, trans. by David Burr, available at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/sugar.asp [accessed 8 January 2018]

Cusimano, Richard, and Eric Whitmore (trans.). 2018. ‘The Book of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis: His Accomplishments during His Administration’, in Selected Works of Abbot Suger of Saint Denis (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press), pp. 66–126

Honorius Augustodunensis. Expositio in Cantica canticorum. 1895. Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Latina, vol. 172, ed. by Jacques-Paul Migne (Paris), pp. 352–53