If you are visiting Paris, block half day on your busy agenda and visit Basilique Saint Denis. The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Denis, previously Saint-Denis Abbey, is a large medieval church in the city of Saint-Denis, now a northern suburb of Paris. This beautiful Gothic construction is a must for different reasons: historical, architectural, artistic and religious.
BASILIQUE DE SAINT DENIS: A ROYAL NECROPOLIS
Saint Denis is very important in the History of France. It is one of the three most important royal places in the country together with Paris (the capital) and Reims (the sacred city). From the VIIth century onward most of the kings and queens of France chose to be buried here. Basilique de Saint Denis is the Royal Necropolis in France like Westminster Abbey is the Royal Necropolis in England.
The basilica stands on the site of a Gallo-Roman cemetery with the tomb of Saint Denis, the first Bishop of Paris martyred around 250 AD. In the Vth century a first chapel was built next to the cemetery. During the following centuries this place became a pilgrimage site and a monastic community founded an abbey here. The monks fed the pilgrims’ fervor with several legends, sometimes invented by the themselves, and the site became very popular. Many important people, especially women, chose Basilique de Saint Denis as its final resting place, close to the saint.
King Dagobert was an important benefactor of Saint Denis Abbey. Dagobert died in 639 and he was the first King to be buried in Saint Denis. Some of his successors decided to do the same and 754 Pepin the Short was crowned king in Saint Denis. Due to this royal link Saint Denis became one of the most powerful Benedictine Abbeys in the Middle Ages and its monks became the official historians of the French Monarchy, writing the « Grandes Chroniques de France » since the 13th century.
BASILIQUE DE SAINT DENIS: THE BIRTH OF GOTHIC ART
Saint Denis also means the birth of Gothic art. In the 12th century Abbot Suger rebuilt the abbey using new and innovative architectural techniques. When visiting the Basilica don’t miss the following elements:
SAINT DENIS’ MAIN FACADE (XIIth century): with its three doors, an impressive rose window and the statues-columns. This is the very first Gothic facade.
THE APSE (LOWER PART): built around Saint Louis’ relics. The increasing number of pilgrims started to be a serious problem for the small Carolingian crypt hosting the relics. In this new apse they used a forest of monolithic columns, supporting one of the first ribbed vaults to be successfully built. This space was like a huge reliquary flooded with colored light housing the relics of the saint. The lack of walls between the chapels and the doubling of the glass surface in each prayer space created an exceptional wall of continuous light.
THE BIGGEST MUSEUM OF FUNERARY STATUARY IN THE WORLD
Most of all, Basilique de Saint Denis is a Royal Necropolis. Since the XIIIth century kings had 3 tombs, usually located in three different churches : body tomb, heart tomb and entrails tomb. Saint Denis was the Royal Necropolis for body tombs while entrails were buried in Reims Cathedral and hearts in a church with sentimental links with the kings.
Since King Dagobert, Basilique de Saint Denis became the French kings’ preferred necropolis and each new dynasty continued this tradition in order to support its legitimacy. Louis XVIII was the last king to be buried here, in 1824.
More than 70 original tombs give us a complete idea of the evolution of the funerary statuary since 12th century until 16th century. If you don’t have the time (or patience) to see them all, check our musts:
KING DAGOBERT’S TOMB: He was the first to be buried here. In the XIIIth century the abbey’s monks built him a bigger tomb on three levels, more in accordance with the greatness of the king. Dagobert looks towards Saint Denis’ former grave and he is surrounded by his wife and his son Clovis II.
ISABELLE OF ARAGON (1243 † 1271): one of the most beautiful tombs in Saint Denis. This tomb is especially beautiful at certain hours of the day, when the multicolored rays of the stained glass get lost in the folds of the clothing that come alive.
CHARLES V (1338 † 1380) ET JEANNE DE BOURBON: Charles V tomb is considered the first official portrait in the history of funeral sculpture and a masterwork of medieval art. His wife’s tomb was destroyed during the Revolution. What we can see today is her entrails’ tomb, brought from the Convent of Celestins in Paris after the Revolution. This is the only entrails’ tomb in the Basilica and you can easily recognize it by the little bag that she is holding in her left hand.
FRANCOIS I AND CLAUDE DE FRANCE: a tomb on two levels, typical of the Renaissance style. Inside the tomb, the royal couple is represented in real size with a striking realism. On the upper platform, the kneeling sovereigns are accompanied by three of their children. These prayers express hope in the Resurrection but also the family character of the mausoleum.
BEFORE LEAVING . . .
Before leaving Basilique de Saint Denis don’t miss the side facade, the one facing the park. Our favorite sculpture (on the picture below) there, try to find it!
Seine-Saint Denis Department. 1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, Saint-Denis, M. Basilique Saint Denis L13. Tickets: full price 8,5€; free entrance the first Sunday of the month from 1st November till 31st March
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