The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Denis (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 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.
The church became a place of pilgrimage and the burial place of the French Kings, with nearly every king from the 10th to the 18th centuries being buried there, as well as many from previous centuries. (It was not used for the coronations of kings, that function being reserved for 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. The basilica's 13th century nave is also the prototype for the Rayonnant Gothic style, and provided an architectural model for cathedrals and abbeys of northern France, England and other countries.
Saint Denis is a patron saint of France and, according to legend, was the first bishop of Paris. Legend relates that he was decapitated on the Hill of Montmartre and subsequently carried his head to the site of the current church, indicating where he wanted to be buried.
According to related legends, a martyrium was erected on the site of his grave. The high altars of the churches later built on the site were said to stand immediately above the martyrium of St. Denis. Archeological excavations have revealed a very large pit immediately under the altar, rather than a tomb; in the pit were animal bones and Roman pot fragments, but no human body. The pit is on public display in the crypt.
Dagobert, 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, which was created by his chief councillor, Eligius, a goldsmith by training. It was described in an early vitaof Saint Eligius:
None of this work survives.
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. The west front has three portals, a rose window and one tower, on the southern side. The eastern end, which is built over a crypt, is apsidal, surrounded by an ambulatory and a chevet of nine radiating chapels. 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), including exceptional modern glass, and a set of twelve misericords.
Little is known about the earliest buildings on the site. The first church mentioned in the chronicles was begun in 754 under Pepin the Short and completed under Charlemagne, who was present at its consecration in 775. Most of what is now known about the Carolingian church at St Denis resulted from a lengthy series of excavations begun under the American art historian Sumner McKnight Crosby in 1937. The building was about 60m long, with a monumental westwork, single transepts, a crossing tower and a lengthy eastern apse over a large crypt (parts of which survive). According to one of the Abbey's many foundation myths a leper, who was sleeping in the nearly-completed church the night before its planned consecration, witnessed a blaze of light from which Christ, accompanied by St Denis and a host of angels emerged to conduct the consecration ceremony himself. Before leaving, Christ healed the leper, tearing off his diseased skin to reveal a perfect complexion underneath. A mishapen patch on a marble column was said to be the leper's former skin, which stuck there when Christ discarded it. Fantastical though they may seem now, the popularity of such myths in medieval accounts go some way to explaining why any redevelopment of the original church was a sensitive matter and why Suger found it necessary to go to such lengths to justify his changes. Having been consecrated by Christ, the fabric of the building was itself regarded as sacred.
Abbot Suger (circa 1081-1151), friend and confidant of French kings and Abbot of St Denis from 1122, began work around 1135 on the rebuild and enlargement of the abbey to which he had been given as an oblate at the age of 10. In his famous account of the work undertaken during his administration, Suger was careful to explain and justify his decision to rebuild the church, complaining at length about the parlous state of the old structure and its inability to cope with the crowds of pilgrims visiting the shrine of St Denis, particularly
...on special days such as the feast of the blessed Denis [...] when the narrowness of the place forced women to run to the altar on the heads of men as on a pavement with great anguish and confusion.
It is important to emphasise that Suger was the patron of the rebuilding of St Denis but not the architect, as was often assumed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact it appears that two distinct architects, or master masons, were involved in the 12th century changes. Both remain anonymous but their work can be distinguished on stylistic grounds. The first, who was responsible for the initial work at the western end, favoured conventional Romanesque capitals and moulding profiles with rich and individualised detailing. His successor, who completed the western facade and upper stories of the narthex, before going on to build the new choir, displayed a more restrained approach to decorative effects, relying on a simple repertoire of motifs, which may have proved more suitable for the lighter Gothic style that he helped to create.
Suger began his rebuilding project at the western end of St Denis, demolishing the old Carolingian westwork, with its single, centrally located door. He extended the old nave westwards by an additional four bays and added a massive western narthex, incorporating a new façade and three chapels on the first floor level. This new westwork, 34m wide and 20m deep, has three portals, the central one larger than those either side, reflecting the relative width of the central nave and lateral aisles. This tripartite arrangement was clearly influenced by the late 11th century façades of the abbey churches of St Etienne and La Trinité, Caen, with which it also shared a three story elevation and flanking towers. Only the south tower survives, its partner having been dismantled following clumsy repairs in the 1840s.
The major innovation in the façade at St Denis is the way the unknown architects have chosen to emphasise the divisions between the different parts with massive vertical buttresses separating the three doorways and horizontal string-courses and window arcades clearly marking out the divisions. This clear delineation of parts was to influence subsequent west façade designs as a common theme in the development of Gothic architecture and a marked departure from the Romanesque. The rose window at the centre of the upper story of the west portal was also innovative and influential. Although small circular windows (oculi) within triangular tympana were common on the west facades of Italian Romanesque churches, this was probably the first example of a rose window within a square frame, which was to become a dominant feature of the Gothic facades of northern France (soon to be imitated at Chartres Cathedral and many others). The overall design of the façade has an obvious resemblance to a Roman city gatehouse (an impression strengthened by the buttresses and by the crenellations around the top), which helps to emphasise the traditional notion of great churches as earthly embodiments of the Heavenly City, as described in the Book of Ezekiel.
Among the many influential features of the new façade were the tall, thin statues of Old Testament prophets and kings attached to columns (jamb figures) flanking the portals (destroyed in 1771 but recorded in Montfaucon 's drawings). These were also adopted at the cathedrals of Paris and Chartres, constructed a few years later, and became a feature of almost every Gothic portal thereafter. Above the doorways, the central tympanum was carved with Christ in Majesty displaying his wounds with the dead emerging from their tombs below. Scenes from the martyrdom of St Denis were carved above the south (right hand) portal, while above the north portal was a mosaic (lost), even though this was, as Suger put it 'contrary to the modern custom'. Of the original sculpture, very little remains, most of what is now visible being the result of rather clumsy restoration work in 1839. Some fragments of the original sculptures survive in the collection of the Musée de Cluny. The portals themselves were sealed by gilded bronze doors, ornamented with scenes from Christ's Passion and clearly recording Suger's patronage with the following inscription;
For the glory of the church which nurtured and raised him, Suger strove for the glory of the church, Sharing with you what is yours, oh martyr Denis. He prays that by your prayers he should become a sharer in Paradise. The year when it was consecrated was the one thousand, one hundred and fortieth year of the Word.
On the lintel below the great tympanum showing the Last Judgement, beneath a carved figure of the kneeling Abbot, was inscribed the more modest plea;
Receive, stern Judge, the prayers of your Suger, Let me be mercifully numbered among your sheep.
Suger's western extension was completed in 1140 and the three new chapels in the narthex were consecrated on 9 June of that year.
On completion of the west front, Abbot Suger moved on to the reconstruction of the eastern end, leaving the Carolingian nave in use. He wanted a choir(chancel) that would be suffused with light. To achieve his aims, Suger's masons drew on the several new elements which evolved or had been introduced to Romanesque architecture: the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, the ambulatory with radiating chapels, the clustered columns supporting ribs springing in different directions and the flying buttresses which enabled the insertion of large clerestory windows.
It was the first time that these features had all been drawn together. Erwin Panofsky argued that Suger was inspired to create a physical representation of the Heavenly Jerusalem, however the extent to which Suger had any aims higher than aesthetic pleasure has been called into doubt by more recent art historians on the basis of Suger's own writings.
The new structure was finished and dedicated on June 11, 1144, in the presence of the King. The Abbey of St Denis thus became the prototype for further building in the royal domain of northern France. Through the rule of the Angevin dynasty, the style was introduced to England and spread throughout France, the Low Countries, Germany, Spain, northern Italy and Sicily.
In 1231, Abbot Odo Clement began work on the rebuilding of the Carolingian nave, which remained sandwiched incongruously between Suger's far more up-to-date Gothic works to the east and west. From the start it appears that Abbot Odo, with the approval of the Regent Blanche of Castille and her son, the young King Louis IX, planned for the new nave and its large crossing to have a much clearer focus as the French 'royal necropolis'. That plan was fulfilled in 1264 when the bones of 16 former kings and queens were relocated to new tombs arranged around the crossing - 8 Carolingian monarchs to the south and 8 Capetians the north. These tombs, featuring lifelike carved recumbent effigies or gisantslying on raised bases, were badly damaged during the French revolution though all but two were subsequently restored by Viollet le Duc in 1860.
The dark Romanesque nave, with its thick walls and small window openings, was rebuilt using the very latest techniques, in what is now known as Rayonnant Gothic. This new style, which differed from Suger's earlier works as much as they had differed from their Romanesque precursors, reduced the wall area to an absolute minimum. Solid masonry was replaced with vast window openings filled with brilliant stained glass (all destroyed in the Revolution) and interrupted only by the most slender of bar tracery - not only in the clerestory but also, perhaps for the first time, in the normally dark triforium level. The upper facades of the two much-enlarged transepts were filled with two spectacular 12m-wide rose windows. As with Suger's earlier rebuilding work, the identity of the architect or master mason is unknown. Although often attributed to Pierre de Montreuil, the only evidence for his involvement is an unrelated document of 1247 which refers to him as 'a mason from Saint-Denis'.
A plan of circa 1700 by Félibien shows a large mortuary chapel in the form of a domed colonnaded "rotunda", adjoining the north transept of the basilica and containing the tomb of the Valois.
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, where they were covered with quicklime. The body of the Dauphin, who died of an illness, was buried in an unmarked grave in a Parisian churchyard near the Temple.
Napoleon Bonaparte reopened the church in 1806, but allowed the royal remains to be left in their mass graves. During Napoleon's exile in Elba, the restored Bourbons ordered a search for the corpses of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The few remains, a few bones that were presumably the king's and a clump of greyish matter containing a lady's garter, were found on January 21, 1815, brought to Saint-Denis and buried in the crypt. In 1817 the mass graves containing all the other remains were opened, but it was impossible to distinguish any individual in the collection of bones. The remains were therefore placed in an ossuary in the crypt of the church, behind two marble plates bearing the names of the hundreds of members of successive royal dynasties interred in the church.
King Louis XVIII, upon his death in 1824, was buried in the center of the crypt, near the graves of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The coffins of royal family members who died between 1815 and 1830 were also placed in the vaults. Under the direction of architect Viollet-le-Duc, famous for his work on Notre-Dame de Paris, church monuments that had been taken to the Museum of French Monuments were returned to the church. The corpse of King Louis VII, who had been buried at the Abbey at Saint-Pont and whose tomb had not been touched by the revolutionaries, was brought to Saint-Denis and buried in the crypt. In 2004 the mummified heart of the Dauphin, the boy who would have been Louis XVII, was sealed into the wall of the crypt.
All but three of the Kings of France are buried in the basilica, as well as a few other monarchs. The remains of the earlier monarchs were removed from the destroyed Abbey of St Genevieve.