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Visit Basilica of Saint-Denis: the Burial Place of the Kings of France

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France’s Beating Heart

One of the most famous religious buildings in Ile de France, the Basilica of Saint-Denis is a place you have to visit at least once in your life. Not only this wonderful basilica – cathedral means the birth of Gothic architecture in France, the Basilica of Saint-Denis is also the burial place of the Kings of France.

Once you’ve decided to go, it makes sense to plan your visit to make sure you see everything inside. Read this quick guide on getting the most out of your visit.

Guided Tours

The Basilica of Saint-Denis is one of the most important historical sites in France and a guided tour with a knowledgeable guide is the best way to learn about this impressive Gothic building.

When we visited Saint-Denis Basilica for the first time, we took the French guided tour (free for individuals) and we were impressed by the guide’s knowledge in arts and history. We learned so many interesting things about the history of France and the funerary art that we would repeat this tour right now!

These French tours (approx. 1 1/2) take place daily at 11 am and 3 pm, from Monday to Saturday, and at 12.30 pm on Sunday.

There are also English tours only but on specific dates (check the Basilica’s website for the next scheduled dates). If you can’t make it, this private guided tour in English has very good reviews.

Saint-Denis - Main facade

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History

Virgin Mary in Saint-Denis

Saint-Denis has a special place in the History of France. This Gothic building is one of the three most important royal places in the country together with Paris (the capital) and Reims (the sacred city).

From the 7th century onward most of the Kings and Queens of France chose to be buried here. The Basilica of Saint-Denis is the Royal Necropolis in France just like Westminster Abbey is the Royal Necropolis in the UK.

The Basilica of Saint-Denis 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 5th century, a first chapel was built next to the cemetery.

During the following centuries, the place became a pilgrimage site and a monastic community settled and founded an abbey in Saint-Denis. The monks fed the pilgrims’ fervor with several legends, sometimes invented by themselves, and the site was very popular. Many important people, especially women, chose Saint-Denis as its final resting place to be close to the saint.

King Dagobert (603 – 639) was an important benefactor of Saint-Denis Abbey and when he died he was the first King to be buried in Saint-Denis. Some of his successors decided to continue with the tradition and in 754 Pepin the Short chose Saint-Denis also for his coronation ceremony. Saint-Denis was also the place where the French Kings came to pray and take the oriflamme before going to war.

Due to this royal connection, 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.

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The Birth of Gothic Architecture

Stained Glass Windows in Saint-Denis

Saint-Denis also means the birth of the Gothic Architecture. In the 12th century, Abbot Suger decided to rebuild the choir of the Abbey using new and innovative architectural techniques which are considered today the basis of Gothic Architecture: the combination of the pointed arch and pointed ribbed vault and the play of light through stained glass windows.

If you want to appreciate the Basilica from an architectural point of view don’t miss the following elements:

Saint-Denis’ Main Facade (12th century)

Rose Window on Main Facade - Saint-Denis

This is the very first Gothic facade in France. It has three portals (instead of just one which was the norm at the time), an inner narthex covered with pointed ribbed vaults and an impressive rose window.

The facade had two towers but the northern tower was destroyed soon after its construction by lightning. Before entering the church admire the facade’s medieval column-sculptures, also from the 12th century.

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The Lower Part of the Chorus (12th century)

The increasing number of pilgrims started to be a serious problem for the small Carolingian crypt hosting Saint-Denis’ relics. For this reason, Abbot Suger decided to build a new chorus around the relics.

This new chorus had a forest of monolithic columns, supporting one of the first ribbed vaults to be successfully built. The lack of walls between the chapels and the doubling of the glass surface created an exceptional space that looked like a huge reliquary flooded with colored light.

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The Central Nave (13th century)

Main Nave in Saint-Denis

If the chorus meant the birth of the Gothic Architecture, Saint-Denis’ central nave represents the peak of this architectural style.

The dark Romanesque nave, with its thick walls and small window-openings, was rebuilt in 1231 using the latest techniques, in what is now known as Rayonnant Gothic.

This new style reduced the wall area to an absolute minimum: the pillars are thinner because the thrust exerted by the vaults was better distributed. Vast window openings filled with brilliant stained glass replaced solid masonry.

Walk around the nave (30m high) and enjoy the colorful light entering through the stained glass on a sunny day. For the creators of the Gothic style, the light was the symbol of divine revelation. The glare of the stained-glass windows served as a showcase for its manifestation and helped the faithful to rise to God.

According to some historical sources, the cost of making Saint-Denis’ stained-glass windows would have been higher than that of stone construction, which shows the fundamental role of light in Gothic Architecture.

Saint-Denis Inside

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The Biggest Museum of Funerary Art in the World

Royal Tombs in Saint-Denis

Most of all, the Basilica of Saint-Denis is the burial place of the Kings of France. Since the 13th-century the French Kings had 3 tombs, usually located in three different religious buildings: body tomb, heart tomb and entrails tomb.

Saint-Denis was the Royal Necropolis for body tombs while the entrails rested in Reims Cathedral. The hearts usually were moved to a church or abbey with sentimental links for the Kings.

Since King Dagobert, the Basilique of Saint-Denis became the French Kings’ burial place and each new dynasty continued this tradition in order to support its legitimacy.

King Louis XVIII was the last French King to be buried in Saint-Denis, in 1824.

Tombs in Saint-Denis

via Flikr CC @Roberto Maldeno

More than 70 original tombs give us a complete idea of the evolution of the funerary statuary in France from the 12th century to the 19th century (click here to see the plan with the location of the tombs). If you don’t have the time (or patience) to see all the tombs, these are our musts:

KING DAGOBERT’S TOMB (602 † 639) 

King Dagobert Tomb - Saint-Denis

King Dagobert I was the first to be buried in Saint-Denis but the tomb that you can see today is not the original tomb of the 7th century.

In the 13th century, the monks of the Abbey built him a bigger tomb on three levels, more in accordance with the greatness of the King. The earliest sculptures of the 13th century show idealized recumbent figures of the deceased. King Dagobert looks towards Saint-Denis’ former grave and he is surrounded by his wife and his son, King Clovis II.

Above them, there is a depiction of the legend of the hermit Jean who had a dream in which King Dagobert’s soul was saved from demons in a boat by the combined efforts of Saints Denis, Martin, and Maurice.

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QUEEN ISABELLE OF ARAGON (1243 † 1271)

Queen Isabelle of Aragon Tomb - Saint-Denis

Queen Isabelle’s tomb is 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.

 

KING CHARLES V (1338 † 1380) AND QUEEN JEANNE DE BOURBON

King Charles V Tomb - Saint-Denis

King 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, however, was destroyed during the French Revolution. What we can see today is her entrails’ tomb, coming 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.

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KING FRANCOIS I (1494 † 1547) AND QUEEN CLAUDE DE FRANCE

King Francois I Tomb - Saint-Denis

King Francois I Tomb via Flickr CC @Guilhem Vellut

During the Renaissance, the funerary monuments became more elaborate culminating in grandiose monuments decorated with numerous statues.

The tomb of King François I and Claude de France has two levels: on the lower platform, the royal couple is represented in real size with 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.

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The Basilica of Saint-Denis: Practical Info

The Basilique-Cathédrale de Saint-Denis is located in the commune of Saint-Denis, in the Department of Seine-Saint-Denis.

This sounds far, but actually you can reach the Basilica by Metro, line 13, stop Basilique Saint-Denis. The address is 1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, Saint-Denis.

The ticket to visit the Basilica costs 9.50 € and you can buy it here to skip the line. The ticket to Basilica of Saint-Denis is also included in the Paris Museum Pass.

The entrance is free for EU members less than 26 years old. There’s also free entrance for everybody on the first Sunday of the month, from 1st November to 31st March.

Tombs of Basilica of Saint-Denis

I hope these tips will be useful to appreciate the beauty and importance of Saint-Denis Basilica. Is there any important gothic church or cathedral in your hometown?

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  • Gerald Sarmiento
    04/24/2017 at 9:33 am

    Lovely photos! Great job!

  • cathy
    04/24/2017 at 1:06 am

    Definitely visiting this church when I’ll be able to visit Paris one day. Coming from a catholic country, churches have special place in my heart. Of course, Paris is the most romantic city! xx beautiful church it is!

    • WorldInParis
      04/25/2017 at 8:48 pm

      I am sure you will love it 🙂

  • Ami
    04/20/2017 at 5:33 am

    This is such a beautiful church. Loved the stained glass art, the gothic spires and the lovely statues. Your pictures really make the whole church look gorgeous

  • Marge
    04/18/2017 at 4:58 pm

    So this is where gothic art came from? Fantastic! I learned something today hahaha… Saint Denis’ facade looks incredible, I mean just look at those intricate designs. This basilique is definitely a must-visit.

    • WorldInParis
      04/18/2017 at 8:33 pm

      All the gothic elements I named on the post were used previously in other churches in the North of France but isolated. This is the first time that those elements typical of gothic architecture are used together 🙂

  • MICHAEL SORIANO
    04/18/2017 at 2:55 pm

    The architecture is really something. It is just so beautiful to witness this work of art from all angles.

    • WorldInParis
      04/18/2017 at 8:33 pm

      It is indeed. Beautiful architecture can be very moving (at least for me) 🙂

  • Suruchi
    04/18/2017 at 12:25 pm

    What a detailed, well written and informative post on Basilique de Saint-denis Cathedral. I like visiting churches and this one is a marvel of architecture. The facades look great as well as those glasses. Will love to visit this once i visit Paris.

    • WorldInParis
      04/18/2017 at 8:34 pm

      It took me lots of time to condensate all this information on a single post, there is so much to see and appreciate in Saint Denis! Glad that you liked the result 🙂

  • The Travel Ninjas
    04/18/2017 at 3:42 am

    Wow. it is truly gorgeous. Your lovely photos make me want to see it all over again. Thanks for all the background info and insider tips too.

    • WorldInParis
      04/18/2017 at 8:35 pm

      You are welcome. Thanks for stopping by and your nice comment 🙂

  • Suze
    04/15/2017 at 11:57 pm

    Now I feel bad because I never visited, despite living in Paris! One of those places that I meant to get round to seeing, but your guide makes it even more appealing

    • WorldInParis
      04/16/2017 at 11:08 am

      Oh, what a pity! So you need to come back to Paris 🙂

  • Melanie
    04/15/2017 at 4:37 pm

    These pictures make me want to book a plane ticket right now!! I love exploring churches and this would definitely be one of the most elaborate I would have ever been in… plus, there’s Paris!! So I think I will go check plane fare! You never know when you might find a reasonably priced ticket!!

    • WorldInParis
      04/16/2017 at 11:09 am

      So cool to read this! Good luck with your tickets searching! 🙂

  • Chrysoula
    04/15/2017 at 2:55 pm

    Such an informative post I haven’t heard of the Basilique Saint-Denis and its rich history before. I would love to visit it next time I am in Paris.

    • WorldInParis
      04/16/2017 at 11:10 am

      Maybe you did not hear about it because it is in Paris’ outskirts?

  • Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie
    04/15/2017 at 2:28 pm

    I love visiting historic, Gothic cathedrals. I’m always amazed by the architecture. It just is a feat in and of itself that structures like these were built without the help of modern building tools, like a crane to hoist heavy stones. I loved reading about the history and all of the royals buried here. I always make it back to Paris so when I do, I’ll definitely save a half a day for this cathedral.

    • WorldInParis
      04/16/2017 at 11:11 am

      Glad that you enjoyed the reading and the basilica’s history 🙂

  • Amelie
    04/15/2017 at 12:36 pm

    I’ve been to Paris, but for some reason can’t remember if I’ve visited St-Denis or not. It sure is stunning and I’ll make sure to visit it – again!?

    • WorldInParis
      04/16/2017 at 11:09 am

      Hopefully you will make it, Amélie! 🙂

  • Sandy N Vyjay
    02/07/2017 at 2:40 am

    These pictures only have shown that why Basilique Saint Denis is among the three most royal places of France. One should definitely not miss this beautiful architecture. Thank you sharing this with us!

  • Erica M Poyaua
    11/10/2016 at 12:07 pm

    I wonder how it feels to go to these sacred places… I really wish to be in Europe!!!

    • WorldInParis
      11/12/2016 at 1:46 pm

      Some are really beautiful. Thanks for your comment, Erica 🙂

  • JEM
    11/07/2016 at 9:14 pm

    Interesting piece of history for being the birth of Gothic. Europe is so full of these imposing Gothic buildings.

    • WorldInParis
      11/08/2016 at 1:40 pm

      Yeah, and some are really beautiful. Thanks for your comment Jem

  • Lala
    11/07/2016 at 12:53 pm

    It looks beautiful! I love the coloured windows and the detail. Amazing!

    • WorldInParis
      11/08/2016 at 1:41 pm

      Yes, that’s why it is my favourite church in Paris

  • Jimmy and Tina
    11/07/2016 at 10:55 am

    Gorgeous photos! I love the stain glass windows and looking at the sarcophagus! Reminds me of photos I took inside the Minster and so fascinating how heavy the stone is and how they could have possibly carried on the burial.

    • WorldInParis
      11/08/2016 at 1:41 pm

      I am also a stain glass windows lover 🙂

  • Juliette @ Snorkels to Snow
    11/06/2016 at 10:52 pm

    Gorgeous! I LOVE Gothic architecture. I missed this basilica on my last visit to Paris though. The interior looks stunning and of course it is so fascinating learning about the history of the church & its saint.

    • WorldInParis
      11/08/2016 at 1:42 pm

      Hope there will be a second chance for you to visit!

  • Natasha Welch
    11/06/2016 at 9:30 pm

    Oooh I didn’t visit here when I was in Paris! I’m back in a month or so though so will put it on the list 🙂

    • WorldInParis
      11/08/2016 at 1:42 pm

      Cool! Enjoy Paris!

  • Danik The Explorer
    11/06/2016 at 7:32 pm

    I love this church, one of my favourites in the city. Great write up and photos

    • WorldInParis
      11/08/2016 at 1:42 pm

      Thanks Danik!

  • Emily
    11/06/2016 at 4:44 pm

    This church is stunning. I love looking around them and imagining how long they must have taken to build and how many generations of people have enjoyed them. I’ve been to Paris several times but I don’t remember ever visiting this church so I will definitely go the next time I visit Paris.

    • WorldInParis
      11/08/2016 at 1:43 pm

      If there is a next time, you should not miss this church!

  • Brianna
    11/06/2016 at 3:25 pm

    That is such a gorgeous church. The stained glass is so detailed, it’s just amazing. I also didn’t know about how the kings could be buried in three different places- a little gross if you ask me 😛

    • WorldInParis
      11/08/2016 at 1:43 pm

      Different parts for different churches 😉

  • Ashleigh Cattermole-Crump
    11/05/2016 at 11:14 pm

    What a beautiful building! Not much for churches but I love the ornate detailing and gothic feel they offer. Plus they’re always pretty impressive structures

    • WorldInParis
      11/08/2016 at 1:44 pm

      Thanks Ashleigh for the comment

  • Eric || The Bucket List Project
    11/05/2016 at 9:02 pm

    After spending my summer walking the Camino de Santiago, I thought I would never want to spend that much time touring churches. But St. Denis’ is beautiful and the Necropolis museum looks intriguing!
    I had been to Paris before but for some reason I hadn’t heard of it…for shame. Next visit it will be on my list!

    • WorldInParis
      11/08/2016 at 1:44 pm

      Good choice, Eric!

  • Tracy
    06/22/2016 at 2:49 am

    That’s really a beautiful church. The detail and the color…just fascinating!

    • WorldInParis
      06/26/2016 at 9:27 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Tracy! 🙂

  • Marge Gavan
    06/02/2016 at 7:18 pm

    I have a thing for churches, in fact, they are one of the places I look for when I go to a certain place, not because I’m religious but because I am fascinated by their structure. And I think Saint Denis is one gorgeous church. Those stained glass art for one is amazing.

    • WorldInParis
      06/06/2016 at 10:22 am

      Thanks for your comment Marge! Yes, Saint Denis is gorgeous and there are many more curches in Paris which are worth the visit ; -)

  • Alex
    06/01/2016 at 12:24 am

    Great post; absolutely love historic churches…

    • WorldInParis
      06/06/2016 at 10:25 am

      Thanks Alex ! : -)

  • Castaway with Crystal
    05/31/2016 at 2:15 pm

    Great history in there! Very interesting 🙂 Thank you for the post.

    Crystal recently posted… Budget Guide: Cuba

    • WorldInParis
      06/06/2016 at 10:26 am

      Thanks to you for visiting the blog : -)

  • Claire
    05/31/2016 at 1:12 pm

    How lovely and colourful! I love stained glass windows. I had no idea that this was in Paris!

    • WorldInParis
      06/06/2016 at 10:26 am

      Oh, and there is much more! If you love stained glass windows, la Sainte Chapelle is your place to go ; -)

  • Kerri
    05/30/2016 at 11:12 pm

    Loved this church and we were in it recently on our most recent trip to Paris. The gothic architecture is something I became particularly fond of on this trip. There was so much of it in Belgium as well.

    • WorldInParis
      06/06/2016 at 10:25 am

      Gothic architecture is beautiful! Glad that you enjoyed it when in Paris, Kerri : -)

  • Ashley Hubbard
    05/30/2016 at 7:08 pm

    Although I’m not religious, I do thoroughly enjoy visiting churches. There is such beautiful architecture and detail involved one can’t help but be mesmerized.

    • WorldInParis
      06/06/2016 at 10:24 am

      Agree with you, Ashley!

  • Carolina Esguerra
    05/30/2016 at 1:57 pm

    I didn’t know bout this Westminster of France and with even greater history. A must-see when I next visit Paris!

    • WorldInParis
      06/06/2016 at 10:24 am

      Cool that you are thinking about a next visit to Paris : -) Thanks for your comment

  • Kirstie
    05/30/2016 at 12:44 pm

    I totally forgot about visiting this basilica when I was in Paris in 2009! It was beautiful!

    • WorldInParis
      05/30/2016 at 12:55 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Kirstie : -)

  • Paul
    05/30/2016 at 11:43 am

    That’s a beautiful church and has lovely features. We love to visit impressive churches around Europe and this one looks like one of the best.

    • WorldInParis
      05/30/2016 at 11:53 am

      Paul, it is! Gothic architecture started with this church 🙂