Too many visitors miss out on Saint-Denis simply because it’s not centrally located in Paris – or because it’s not as famous as Notre Dame. And yet the cathedral is one of the most noteworthy buildings in France, and perhaps in all of Europe. Some call Saint-Denis the “French Westminster” since it played a major role in France’s history, including serving as the burial place for royals since the sixth century. However, Saint-Denis can claim something else which distinguishes it from any other structure in the world: it’s the first work of Gothic architecture.
We are happy to report that Saint-Denis is not only easy to get to, but also crowd-free. On a Sunday in June, it made a magical respite from the rest of Paris.
“The French Style”
The birth of Gothic architecture is inextricably linked to the development of France as a nation, especially its monarchy. In fact, “Gothic” was known as “the French style” until the Renaissance, when Vasari used it as a means to contrast French churches with classical Italian structures.
By the 11th century, the Île-de-France was a small territory centered around Paris, dwarfed and dominated by “vassal” states like Burgundy and Normandy. Though their holdings were small, the French kings saw themselves as divine instruments and were anointed with holy oil at their coronations.
France’s prestige began to rise during the reign of Louis VI (a.k.a. Louis the Fat) from 1108 to 1137. As a youth, the king had studied at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, which housed the royal archives. There, he became friends with the future Abbot Suger, who would eventually become one of the most powerful clerics in western Europe and the driving force behind a new style of architecture.
Suger believed in the power of beauty to evoke awe and promote connection with the divine. And with the latest innovations in building techniques, he saw an opportunity to create a revolutionary experience of space.
The Basilica of Saint-Denis
According to legend, Romans martyred St. Denis around 250, and Ste. Geneviève commissioned a small church to house his remains in the old Gallo-Roman cemetery. At some point French monarchs adopted him as their patron saint and began having themselves buried nearby. Charlemagne consecrated an expansion of the church into a basilica in 775.
The façade of St. Denis, still missing a tower, may not strike current visitors as the grandest of structures, but Suger’s 1135-1140 renovation combined a number of elements for the first time. From the Normans, Suger and the masons borrowed twin towers and crenellations, symbolically protecting the royal standard and crowns housed within. Three massive portals, echoing the Holy Trinity, reinforce the connection between the church and the monarchy. Finally, the rose window appears for the first time as a prominent feature of the façade.
The next phase of Suger’s work consisted of bringing the sacred tombs up to the main floor. Since the seventh century, French monarchs had been traditionally laid to rest in the lower level of the basilica. Over time, however, all those royals created congestion in the crypt, especially as the number of pilgrims kept increasing. Suger’s new ambulatory apse would handle the higher traffic (and higher revenues) from the pilgrims and elevate the status of the deceased royals. However, Suger was interested in more than just the layout….
Local stonemasons had been experimenting with pointed arches and ribbed vaulting, imported from Islamic architecture. Pointed arches can bear greater loads than rounded ones, and the multidirectional vaulting gave still more flexibility. Exploiting this form of engineering meant Suger could raise the roof to an unprecedented height, creating a space which soared. It also allowed him to use slender columns to support the roof, thus liberating the walls to become pure light. Stained glass, rare and expensive, would turn the apse into an evocation of heavenly paradise. The panels wound up costing more than the rest of the structure, but they created a sensation – and a whole new style of architecture.
More cathedrals were needed when cities began to grow again, and most of them used Saint-Denis as a model. With the increase of skilled trades, patrons had the means to compete for the most innovative and lavish new structures. The “French style” spread out from France to other parts of Europe. Political currents also favored the French kings, as they began assuming control over more territory.
Saint-Denis underwent one final transformation, completed in 1231, which would inspire a new phase in Gothic architecture. Young Louis IX (Saint Louis) commissioned a series of statues for the tombs of earlier kings found in the crypt and had the nave and transept renovated to provide a suitable showcase for them. Each arm got a massive rose window spanning the entire length of the wall. Rose windows became all the rage, and the new style was dubbed “Rayonnant.” For more on this style, see our post on Sainte-Chapelle.
Saint-Denis in the modern era
Saint-Denis continued to function as a mausoleum for monarchs, even as its role in culture and politics diminished over the years. The church came to house 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses, and 10 nobles. Along with over 70 recumbent effigies, multi-level tombs were added in the Renaissance.
During the French Revolution, rebels attacked the church as a symbol of the monarchy. They mixed the royal remains with lime in a pair of mass graves outside. (Loyalists managed to move the statues to a temporary refuge.) To obtain material for more weapons, the revolutionaries melted down the lead roof and broke all but five of the windows. By the time Napoleon came to power, the church was considered a ruin. However, the new ‘emperor’ wanted to be buried there himself, so he ordered its restoration in 1806.
In 1837, lightning damaged the north tower. It was rebuilt so poorly that it had to be dismantled soon after. The renowned architectural historian Viollet-le-Duc took over the renovation, but his plans for the tower’s replacement were never approved. Interestingly, the façade now echoes its appearance in Suger’s day, since the north tower hadn’t been built when he died.
The façade with the old north tower (left), and Viollet-le-Duc’s design (right).
Like many Parisian churches, Saint-Denis hosts regular concerts. We happened to visit during rehearsals for an evening performance by the duo Bird on a Wire. Listening to an a cappella cover of the strangely appropriate Beatles song “Within You Without You” while wandering amongst the royal tombs was nothing short of spellbinding.
Saint-Denis is especially compelling if you’re familiar with any of the monarchs who have tombs there. Our post on historical fiction has a few relevant entries: the second book in Sharon Kay Penman’s Plantagenet series covers France during the Suger years, while Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series brings French royalty in the late Medieval era to life. Suger himself left several volumes of writing, but they require a fair amount of historical expertise to appreciate.
Here is a link with opening hours and a map of the royal tombs in Saint-Denis. Purchase advance tickets online through the Centre des Monuments Nationaux (adult €9.50). Saint Denis is free with the Paris Pass.
Multiple transportation lines serve the suburb of Saint-Denis and its namesake basilica: Métro line 13, or the RER D or H lines; Bus lines 11, 153, 239, 253, or 274; Tram line T1.