I love France #23: Basilica of Saint-Denis


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Last week, as part of the Weekly Photo Challenge, I posted a picture taken recently in the Cathedral Basilica of Saint-Denis, very close to Paris. As this picture received lots of views and comments, I thought the time had come to dedicate a whole post to this gorgeous edifice.

The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Denis (French: Cathédrale royale de Saint-Denis, or simply Basilique Saint-Denis, previously the Abbaye de Saint-Denis) is a large medieval abbey church in the commune of Saint-Denis, now a northern suburb of Paris. The abbey church was created a cathedral in 1966 and is the seat of the Bishop of Saint-Denis, Pascal Michel Ghislain Delannoy. The building is of unique importance historically and architecturally.

The site originated as a Gallo-Roman cemetery, in late Roman times – the archeological remains still lie beneath the cathedral; the people buried there seem to have had a faith that was a mix of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs and practices. Around 475 St. Genevieve purchased some of the land and built a church. In the 7th century, the earlier church was replaced by a much grander construction, on the orders of Dagobert I; it is claimed that Dagobert also moved the body of Saint Denis, a patron saint of France, to the building.

According to legend, Saint Denis was the first bishop of Paris. Legend says that he was decapitated on the Hill of Montmartre. To account for his tomb being at Saint Denis, several miles away, legend states that Denis carried his head to the site of the current church, thereby indicating where he wanted to be buried.

The Basilica of St Denis is an architectural landmark as it was the first major structure of which a substantial part was designed and built in the Gothic style. Both stylistically and structurally it heralded the change from Romanesque architecture to Gothic architecture. Before the term “Gothic” came into common use, it was known as the “French Style” (Opus Francigenum).

As it now stands, the church is a large cruciform building of “basilica” form, that is, it has a central nave with lower aisles and clerestory windows. It has an additional aisle on the northern side formed of a row of chapels.

I really love the effects on this picture:
first the building does not look straight, though it is,
and you can see the light filtered by the stain glass windows.
More of this below!

Dagobert I, the king of the Franks (reigned 628 to 637), refounded the church as the Abbey of Saint Denis, a Benedictine monastery. Dagobert also commissioned a new shrine to house the saint’s remains.

Abbot Suger (circa 1081-1151), friend and confidant of French kings and Abbot of St Denis from 1122, began work around 1135 on the rebuilding and enlarging of the abbey.

The basilica retains stained glass of many periods, although most of the panels from Suger’s time have been removed for long-term conservation and replaced with photographic transparencies.

Isn’t that amazing how the light filtered through the stained glass windows
brings colors and warmth to the building?

The church became a place of pilgrimage and the burial place of the French Kings, nearly every king from the 10th to the 18th centuries being buried there, as well as many from the previous centuries. (It was not used for the coronations of kings, this role being designated to the Cathedral of Reims; however, queens were commonly crowned there.) “Saint-Denis” soon became the abbey church of a growing monastic complex. In the 12th century the Abbot Suger rebuilt portions of the abbey church using innovative structural and decorative features that were drawn from a number of other sources. In doing so, he is said to have created the first truly Gothic building.

Just a few people buried there.
There are many more, you can see the full list here.

The abbey is where the kings of France and their families were buried for centuries and is therefore often referred to as the “royal necropolis of France”. All but three of the monarchs of France from the 10th century until 1789 have their remains here. Some monarchs, like Clovis I (465-511), were not originally buried at this site. The remains of Clovis I were exhumed from the despoiled Abbey of St Genevieve which he founded.

The abbey church contains some fine examples of cadaver tombs. The effigies of many of the kings and queens are on their tombs, but during the French Revolution, these tombs were opened by workers under orders from revolutionary officials. The bodies were removed and dumped in two large pits nearby and dissolved with lime. Archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir saved many of the monuments from the same revolutionary officials by claiming them as artworks for his Museum of French Monuments.

The bodies of the beheaded King Louis XVI, his wife Marie Antoinette of Austria, and his sister Madame Élisabeth were not initially buried in Saint-Denis, but rather in the churchyard of the Madeleine.

These are 3 pictures of the same tombs.
The animals, lions, are dogs, at the feet of the royal couples,
are said to symbolize their faithfulness to each other.

Lots of the most important tombs have 2 levels:
on the upper level the monarchs are represented kneeling in court dress,
while on the lower level, they are shown lying naked in the rigidity of death.
One could also interpret the 2nd level
as representing the couple in the heavenly court:
this makes sense if one keeps in mind
that these royalties,
afraid of not appearing at their best on Judgment day,
wanted to be buried near Saint Denis
to benefit form his intercession.

Other examples:

Bertrada of Laon, also called Bertha Broadfoot

Louis XII and Anne de Bretagne,
with the 12 Apostles around the tomb

Detail: John the Apostle

Henri II and Catherine de Médicis



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