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Basilique de Saint Denis – best tips to enjoy the Most Beautiful Church in Paris

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.

BOOK:  The Royal French Necropolis: Basilica of St Denis Tour

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Basilique de Saint Denis

READ MORE –  Best Day Trips from Paris

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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 VII 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 V 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 XIII century.

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THE BIRTH OF GOTHIC ARCHITECTURE

Saint-Denis also means the birth of Gothic Art. In the XII 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 (XII 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 XII century.

Basilique de Saint Denis

THE APSE’S LOWER PART (XII 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 (XIII 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.

Basilique de Saint Denis

Basilique de Saint Denis

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THE BIGGEST MUSEUM OF FUNERARY ART IN THE WORLD

Most of all, Basilique de Saint-Denis is France’s Royal Necropolis. Since the XIII 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.

Basilique de Saint Denisvia Flikr CC @Roberto Maldeno

More than 70 original tombs give us a complete idea of the evolution of the funerary statuary from XII century to XIX 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 XIII 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 XIII 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

Click here to see the tombs’ location plan

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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

Basilique de 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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Basilique de Saint Denis

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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 🙂