If you are visiting Paris, block a half day on your busy agenda and visit Basilique de 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. If you like Gothic Architecture, visiting Notre Dame de Paris in Paris 4 won’t be enough. Basilique de Saint Denis is a must for different reasons: historical, architectural, artistic and religious.
BASILIQUE DE SAINT DENIS: FRANCE’S BEATING HEART
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 settled and founded an abbey here. 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 Basilique de Saint Denis as its final resting place, close to the saint.
King Dagobert was an important benefactor of Saint Denis Abbey and when he 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 in 754 Pepin the Short chose Saint Denis for his coronation ceremony. Also, the French kings came to Saint Denis to pray and take the oriflamme before going to war or to the Crusades.
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 XIIIth century.
THE BIRTH OF GOTHIC ARCHITECTURE
Saint Denis also means the birth of Gothic Art. In the XIIth century, Abbot Suger rebuilt the abbey using new and innovative architectural techniques which are considered today the basis of Gothic Architecture: the combination of plant, pointed arch, pointed vault and the search of more light. If you want to appreciate the Basilica from an architectural point of view don’t miss the following elements:
SAINT DENIS’ MAIN FACADE (XIIth century)
This is the very first Gothic facade. It has three portals (instead of just one which was the norm at the time), an inner narthex covered with pointed 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 XIIth century.
THE APSE’S LOWER PART (XIIth 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 apse around the relics. This new apse 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 which looked like a huge reliquary flooded with colored light.
THE CENTRAL NAVE (XIIIth century)
If the apse meant the birth of the Gothic Art, Saint Denis’ central nave represents the peak of Gothic Art. The dark Romanesque nave, with its thick walls and small window-openings, was rebuilt in 1231 using the very 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, light is 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.
THE BIGGEST MUSEUM OF FUNERARY ART IN THE WORLD
Most of all, Basilique de Saint Denis is France’s 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 rested 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.
via flikr CC @Roberto Maldeno
More than 70 original tombs give us a complete idea of the evolution of the funerary statuary from XIIth century to XIXth century. If you don’t have the time (or patience) to see all the tombs, check our musts:
KING DAGOBERT’S TOMB (602 † 639)
Dagobert I 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. The earliest sculptures from the XIIIth century show idealized recumbent figures of the deceased. Dagobert looks towards Saint Denis’ former grave and he is surrounded by his wife and his son Clovis II. Above them there is a depiction of the legend of the hermit Jean who had a dream in which Dagobert’s soul was saved from demons in a boat by the combined efforts of Saints Denis, Martin, and Maurice.
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, 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.
FRANCOIS I (1494 † 1547) AND CLAUDE DE FRANCE
During the Renaissance, the funerary monuments became more elaborate culminating in grandiose monuments decorated with numerous statues. The tomb had two levels: 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.
Francois’ tomb via flickr CC @Guilhem Vellut
BASILIQUE DE SAINT DENIS – PRACTICAL INFO
The Basilique-Cathédrale de Saint Denis is in Seine-Saint-Denis Department.
Address: 1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, Saint-Denis; M. Basilique Saint Denis, L13.
Tickets: full price 9€; Free for EU members less than 26 years old. Free entrance for all the first Sunday of the month, from 1st November to 31st March
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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