Basilica St. Denis

Image of St.Denis with head in his arms

St.Denis as seen in crypt of Basilica. Image by Elizabeth Marshall

In some sense, French history started here with the writings of the monks of St. Denis.  One of the most famous tales was of the origins of the sacred site itself.  It recalls the legend of St. Denis, an Italian missionary sent to France to spread the teachings of Catholicism.  In 250 AD, St Denis — condemned to death by torture and decapitation by the local pagan priests for not denouncing his religious beliefs —  picked up his head the moment it was severed from his body and marched —  up hill —  6 kilometers carrying his head — which itself was still preaching the Gospel — all the way.   A shrine was built on the spot where he eventually collapsed, and this site has become a frequent  destination for religious pilgrimages. Toward the end of the fifth century, the cathedral was built and included a place for the remains of the now-martyred Saint. The Abbey eventually evolved into a burial site for the deceased royalty of France. To wit, the  tombs of most of the kings and queens of France  from the sixth century onwards are contained within the walls of the Basilica (pamphlet from museum). Although the Basilica fulfills the most basic of definitions for a museum in that it has the requisite collection of universal artistry that is present in all museums, the royal remains lend a quiet aura of respectfulness not always present in modern-day museums.  Yet the French kings and queens are the most venerated objects in this pre-museum,  a testimony to their divine rights and imposed juxtaposition to God himself. The beautiful statuary  is not there for artistry but as a representation of the power of the monarchy.  The marble itself transformed from an earthly mineral to an agent of state, a demonstration of authority and divine rights.  As such, in visiting St. Denis, one often feels as if they are visiting a cemetery rather than a church or a museum.

Tombs in the crypt at St. Denis Basilica

Structural remains and ancient coffins in the crypt. Image by Elizabeth Marshall

The crypt containing the collective remains of France’s royal families — except for royalty who died after the Revolution, it was impossible to separate the remains of the individual once they were interred,  so they were placed in a common tomb — is located beneath the main floor of the church.  Because they died after the Revolution,  Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, have been buried in individual graves in the crypt. With the musty dark caverns of the crypt invoking all the senses to take you back through the centuries, this is where you get the real sense of time and history gone by.

Image of cross-ribbed ceiling at Basilica St.Denis

Example of cross-ribbed supports instituted by Abbot Suger in 12th century renovation. Image by Elizabeth Marshall

The cathedral itself has undergone many changes and renovations over the centuries. One such renovation occurred in the 12th century when Abbot Suger, a religious politician with the ear of the king, made major improvements to the Abbey.  From 1140-1144, Suger rebuilt the structure using new architectural techniques that included cross-ribbed vaulted ceilings and a huge stained glass window in the shape of a rose. This style of architecture with the ribbed vaulted ceilings and pointed arches was the precursor to the Gothic arches of  Notre Dame.

Stained glass window at Basilica St. Denis

Rose window in St.Denis Basilica. Image by Elizabeth Marshall

The Abbey fell into decline during the French Revolution when most of the monuments containing any connection to the monarchy were destroyed. The cathedral was restored again to its present day splendor in the 19th century and officially became a cathedral in 1966.

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2 thoughts on “Basilica St. Denis

  1. Pingback: October 9 – St. Denis’s Day, patron saint for those who have lost their head (Tea Party? House GOP?) | Millard Fillmore's Bathtub

  2. Pingback: October 9, 2018 – St. Denis’s Day, patron saint for those who have lost their head | Millard Fillmore's Bathtub

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