Sooner or later the nation will want to do something nice for France, and I have just the thing: return the chalice of the Abbot Suger to the treasury of St.-Denis outside Paris.
At the moment this cup, rimmed and footed in wrought gold, sits handsomely and beautifully lighted in the National Gallery of Art.
I realize my splendid suggestion to return it to France, which it ought never to have left in the first place, opens up a can of artistic worms.
Somebody will argue that once you start returning artworks, there's no end to it, and it won't be long before somebody comes roaring back with the argument that there's no reason to return the chalice to the great basilica of St.-Denis since (they will argue) Christian churches have themselves plundered treasure from other countries for their own embellishment. Thus the magnificent churches at such places as Constantinople and Venice are full of rare marble seized God knows where from God knows whom.
You recall those portraits of the Washingtons that were owned by a society in Boston, which wanted to sell them to the National Portrait Gallery, partly because it needed some cash and partly because nobody ever looked at them in Boston and partly because the gallery here is an appropriate place for their display. And yet people in Boston hollered and carried on as if somebody were trying to ship Boston Common to Phoenix.
There is also the thorny case of the Elgin Marbles (that's a hard g, by the way) which are the great treasure of the British Museum. Greeks have long thought they should be returned to Athens.
But I am not making the argument that works of art should be returned to the country of their origin; merely that some should be returned, when they fit the following requirements:
First, the object must be serious. Louis XIV's chamber pot and John Kennedy's doodles, for example, cannot be regarded as national treasures. The chalice of Suger (that's a soft g), on the other hand, was an object of incalculable seriousness at the time it was made (in the year 1144 or thereabouts).
Second, the object must be intimately connected with a great historical figure, or with a national movement of overwhelming importance. The Suger cup belonged to the abbot himself, who was for all practical purposes king of France. He was regent while King Louis VII was leading a Crusade.
Suger was moreover one of the wisest figures of French history. He strongly opposed the Crusade, a brainstorm of Bernard of Clairvaux, whose wisdom in this and other matters bears heavy questioning. Still, Suger was wise enough to refrain from open breaks with either the king or the saint.
When the somewhat reckless king started seizing land of the count of Champagne (the most powerful lord of France) Suger saw that unity did not lie in that direction and worked energetically to smooth over that dangerous breach, which a wiser king would have avoided in the first place.
Third, the object should have strong identifications with what we may call the soul or the spirit of the nation. Suger, not to split hairs, invented the soul of France. He took St. Denis (who lived 200 years after the death of Christ and who was first bishop of Paris and who is the patron saint of France as St. George is the patron of England) and more or less single-handedly whipped up a national mystique centered on that patron. There already existed the church dedicated to Denis outside Paris, but Suger transformed it utterly, into the first great Gothic church of France. In no time it was copied or adapted at Chartres, at Senlis and through the Ile de France and all the rest of Europe. Suger invented (for purposes of ready summary) the Gothic style, with all its implications of increased humanity, love and observation of nature, and a whole new expansion of the horizons of the mind. It is impossible to think of the 12th-century Renaissance and the new glory of France apart from Suger.
When the king of France needed to raise a great army, it was Suger's idea to appeal to the force of St. Denis, the patron of France, that was latent in French minds. Men were to fight not for the king of France but for the saintly patron of France. Suger assisted the union between the state and the church to the increased power of both. The holy oriflamme, that bright banner that was to be so important to Joan of Arc and to French feelings of honor, was Suger's idea--the banner of St. Denis--and a powerful one.
As politician, churchman, architectural czar, psychologist of the French soul, Suger is a figure of vast importance in French history.
The medieval church was the center of his life, and the sacramental cup was the center of the church. His own cup, of carved sardonyx, gold and silver-gilt set with colored stones, was possibly given him by the king of France, and in any case it was not simply a pretty bauble but a most solemn and significant object.
Suger's church at St.-Denis, quite apart from its startling new masterpieces of Gothic stone and glass, is also the national tomb of the kings of France over the centuries.
Finally, the art object (in judging whether it should be returned) should preferably be relatively ancient, relatively irreplaceable (a book owned by Thomas Jefferson would hardly qualify as an American national treasure since there were so many of them and since they are not uniquely identified with the ultimate center of Jefferson's life) and absolutely central to the symbolism of the nation. The art object should, in other words, be sacred, and so regarded by the nation.
On all these points the cup of Suger qualifies as a French national treasure that should never have left France, should never have left the treasury of Suger's and Denis' church.
As a practical matter, it is important if the object could be returned without major difficulty. The cup is a sufficiently minor object of the National Gallery that for years it was kept in storage. Its monetary value is relatively slight. It has no association whatever with the United States, apart from the fact that a rich American bought it and gave it to the gallery. It was not a trophy of American arms; it does not figure in any way whatever with Franco-American history. It could be returned to St.-Denis without impoverishing the gallery in the least.
An equivalent work of art might be exchanged for it, one of great artistic significance but of no primary significance in French history. A replica could easily be made, with the label that the original had been returned to France where it belonged. The French, for their part, might on occasion lend the original to be displayed at the museum.
When I saw the cup at the National Gallery I was glad to be able to examine it closely in its splendid small case that you can walk all around. But my strongest feeling was that however lovely the cup may be, it is wrong for it to be here. I imagine the National Gallery will be pleased at my suggestion, which gives them an unwonted opportunity to do a dandy deed.