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History of the monument

1 - The Abbey of Saint-Denis

2 - A royal monument

3 - The recumbent effigies and tombs of Saint-Denis

4 - From revolutionary unrest to the restoration works of the 19th century

5 - Innovative architecture

6 - Some essential tombs


1 - The Abbey of Saint-Denis 

For centuries, the former royal abbey of Saint-Denis illuminated the artistic, political and spiritual history of the Frankish world.

The abbey-church was designated a "basilica" in Merovingian times. In the 12th century the abbot of Saint-Denis, Suger, still qualified it in his works as a "basilica". This qualifier was applied from the 4th century to churches whose floor plans were the same as those of Roman civic buildings with three naves, used for trade and the administration of justice. They were often erected outside towns and over the tomb of a saint. They were the site of a major pilgrimage and often the cause for the development of a neighbourhood or borough, like the town of Saint-Denis, which developed around the abbey and its economic potential.

Basilica is also an honorary title given to all kinds of churches, of all eras, that were the seat of a major pilgrimage. Only a cathedral is of superior rank. In 1966, the basilica was elevated to cathedral status, a name derived from "cathedra", meaning the seat of the bishop, the head of the diocese located there. A copy of the throne of Dagobert, the original of which is in the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque Nationale, is currently used by the bishop as an episcopal see.

The first building rises from the tomb of Saint Denis, a missionary bishop who died under the yoke of Roman rule in the second part of the 3rd century. The body of the saint attracted many princely burials around him from the late 4th century. Besides a partly Carolingian crypt, the remains of the building consecrated in the presence of Charlemagne in 775, the basilica preserves the testimony of buildings that were decisive for the evolution of religious architecture: the façade (1135-1140) and the apse (1140 -1144), the work of abbot Suger, which constitute a hymn to light, a manifesto of new early Gothic art; other parts of the present church built in the time of Saint Louis from 1230 to 1280 are a testimony of the heyday of Gothic art, known as "Rayonnant", such as the exceptionally vast transept  accommodating the royal tombs.

A place of remembrance from the early Middle Ages, the Dionysian monastery was able to link its fate to that of the monarchy, gradually asserting itself as the privileged tomb of the royal dynasties, taking advantage of the cult of Saint Denis. Forty-two kings, thirty-two queens, sixty-three princes and princesses and ten men of the kingdom rest in peace there. With over seventy recumbent effigies and monumental tombs, the royal necropolis of the basilica is today the most significant group of funerary sculptures from the 12th to the 16th century in Europe.

But the basilica of Saint-Denis was not the "graveyard of the kings" from the beginning of the Frankish kingdom as qualified by a chronicler of the 13th century. Until the 10th century, the abbey was in fierce competition with many other cemeteries, especially with Saint-Germain-des-Prés. At the accession of the Capetians in 987, its role as a royal necropolis gradually became confirmed and most sovereigns were buried there until the 19th century; although, for political, religious or personal reasons, some kings, like Philip I in 1108, Louis VII in 1180, Louis XI in 1483, Charles X in 1836 and Louis-Philippe in 1850, would be buried in other places. Louis XVIII, who died in 1824, was the last king to be buried in the basilica.

Throughout history the Frankish kings were always in search of legitimacy, which partly explains their will to be buried with the relics of Saint Denis, Rusticus and Eleutherius (all three having been martyred together). By way of their powers, the kings thought they had acquired power and protection during their life, particularly for their battles, and for going directly to Paradise.

The rallying cry of the knights on the battlefield in the 12th and 13th centuries, "Montjoie Saint Denis!", inscribed on the scarlet banner, interspersed with the golden flames of the famous oriflamme of Saint-Denis, became the motto of the kingdom of France, which was thus placed under the protection of the titular saint of the kingdom, Saint Denis. This standard is a beautiful image of the personal union between the abbey, the patron saint and the king. This ensign was always raised in time of war by the rulers who came to collect it from the hands of the abbot on the altar of the holy martyrs. It is one of the major objects of the mediaeval epic around which a first national sentiment formed. A 1913 copy, little conform to the original, remains in the basilica.

The Hundred Years' War, the Wars of Religion and political unrest contributed to the decline of the royal abbey of Saint-Denis long before the Revolution precipitated matters. In 1793, revolutionaries attacked the symbols of the monarchy, but the basilica escaped total destruction. In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the restoration of the building. Then Louis XVIII restored the role of necropolis to the abbey. The restoration work continued throughout the 19th century and was conducted, in particular, by architects François Debret and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc from 1846.


2 - A royal monument

Burials before the 13th century

The rich and influential Parisian noblewoman, Saint Geneviève, showed special devotion to Saint Denis. She undoubtedly had the tomb of Saint Denis expanded or had a building built around it in 475. The development of a vast necropolis, which extended well beyond the church, in the 6th and 7th centuries, led to expanding the church.

Many high-ranking figures, mostly women, were then buried "ad sanctos" as close to the saint as possible. The discovery in 1959 of the sarcophagus of Queen Arnegunde, daughter-in-law of Clovis, who died around 580, shows the power of attraction of the sanctuary in this early period. The jewellery associated with her burial is kept in the Musée d'archéologie nationale du Domaine de Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

Fifty years later, in 639, King Dagobert was the first Frankish king to be buried in the basilica of Saint-Denis. Some Merovingians and Carolingians were buried there, such as Charles Martel, Pepin the Short and Emperor Charles the Bald.

Dagobert distinguished himself by making generous donations to the abbey and legend has it that he created the Saint-Denis fair that was held each October and was a great source of wealth for the monastery.

Charles Martel died in 741. Even though he was only the Mayor of the Palace he was given a prestigious burial, opposite the great King Dagobert. He thus enabled his family, the Pippinids, future Carolingians, to rise to the ranks of the greatest noblemen. His recumbent effigy, created in the 13th century, shows him crowned as the Capetians considered him as the ancestor of the great Carolingian dynasty.

Pepin the Short, the son of Charles Martel, was anointed by Pope Stephen II at Saint-Denis in July 754, thus sealing the alliance between the Frankish kings and the papacy. He was the first Frankish sovereign to be crowned as the image of God on earth in the image of king David. On this occasion he had the church rebuilt along the lines of the Roman buildings known as basilicas. Featuring a wooden ceiling, dozens of marble columns and decorated with thousands of oil lamps, for the first time it was combined with a crypt that housed the relics of Saint Denis until the 12th century. A few remains of this Roman-style martyrium, decorated with paintwork imitating marble, can still be seen.


Recumbent effigies said to be commissioned by Saint Louis

Louis IX (Saint Louis), who was canonised in 1297, was called a "superman" by the pope. A man of great faith, this king was particularly attached to Saint-Denis. He continuously strengthened the basilica’s role as a royal necropolis. The series of 16 recumbent effigies, said to be commissioned by Saint Louis in around 1265, is the largest funerary sculpture series of the European Middle Ages. Today 14 of the original sculptures remain. They are placed in both arms of the transept, virtually in their old locations evidenced by 18th-century engravings.

The mediaeval effigies, said to be commissioned by Saint Louis, are designed on the model of the statue-columns that decorate church portals. In the 13th century, they were among the first funerary sculptures made for the abbey of Saint-Denis. Previously, only the engraved stone slabs arranged on the floor near the altar marked the location of the royal tombs. The reorganisation of the necropolis, launched by the Capetian rulers, led to the discovery and transfer of the remains of the 16 sovereigns, buried between the 7th and 12th centuries. Their bones were then placed in boxes above which 16 recumbent figures with idealised faces were installed, a majestic expression of the royal function. The mode of representation of these sculptures is relatively uniform. The sovereigns wear a crown and carry a sceptre. These recumbent effigies, which were originally painted in bright colours, are dressed in the fashion of the 13th century. They are not represented dead; they have their eyes open to the eternal light. They assert belief in the Resurrection. They are turned towards the east, towards the sunrise, the image of Christ whose return they await.

But the layout desired by the Capetian rulers was also political. Through this grandiose setting, Louis IX developed the myth of monarchical continuity between the Merovingians, Carolingians and Capetians and aimed to link his family to Charlemagne, the most impressive figure in mediaeval monarchical ideology.

The inscriptions on the new tombs identify the kings and queens and clarify the genealogies. In the Middle Ages, in the centre of the transept, the gilded silver tombs of Louis VIII and Philip Augustus, the grandfather of Saint Louis, victor of the Battle of Bouvines in 1214, had the places of honour. The central tomb of the series is that of Louis VIII, the father of Louis IX. Indeed, according to the Dominican Vincent of Beauvais, an intimate of Saint Louis, the mixed blood of the Carolingians and Capetians flowed in the veins of Louis VIII as his mother, Isabella of Hainaut, was of Carolingian ancestry. It thus symbolises, in the Capetian family, "the return to the throne of the race of Charlemagne". Indeed, in the 11th century, Saint Valery had prophesied that the Capetian kingdom could only be maintained up to the seventh king, which was precisely Philip Augustus, father of Louis VIII.

This series was completed in around 1280 by erecting a magnificent tomb of goldsmithery in honour of Saint Louis, "the most beautiful tomb in the world" according to his chronicler Guillaume de Nangis. It was destroyed, as well as the other goldsmithery tombs, during the Hundred Years' War.

Thus the accomplishment of this sculpted series ensured the title of royal necropolis to Saint Denis, to which its abbots had long aspired, and offered the Capetian dynasty a legitimacy and prestige that it had hitherto been lacking.


Capetian pride

This prestige was also disseminated by books. At the end of the Middle Ages the library of the monastery was the largest in the kingdom. The role of the abbey was to maintain, establish and disseminate the memory of the reigning dynasty. At the request of Saint Louis, the monk Primat translated a huge set of texts for the first time into French, a first draft of the history of France. This compilation of official chronicles of the kingdom grew until the 15th century, under the name of Grandes Chroniques de France. By elaborating texts favourable to the monarchy, just as by creating sculpted images of the kings, the Capetian dynasty associated the ancient origins of the Frankish kingdom to those of its family.


3 - The recumbent effigies and tombs of Saint-Denis

A recumbent effigy is a sculpture of a figure lying down. The word "recumbent" comes from the Latin recumbere to "lie back", from re- + cumbere "to lie". Over 70 recumbent effigies are kept at Saint-Denis, some of which come from churches that have been destroyed. In addition to the 14 recumbent effigies commissioned by Saint Louis, there are also tombs of Capetians in Saint-Denis: Philip III the Bold, Isabella of Aragon, Philip IV the Fair, Louis X "the Stubborn", infant king John I; tombs of the Valois: Philip VI, John II the Good, Charles V, Charles VI, Isabeau of Bavaria; kings, queens, princes and princesses from other places: Clovis, Childebert, Fredegund, Charles of Anjou, the Dukes of Orléans and also the tombs of servants of the monarchy: Du Guesclin, Louis de Sancerre. While the effigies of the 13th century are somewhat hieratic, the recumbent figures of Philip III the Bold, Philip IV the Fair and especially that of Isabella of Aragon, daughter of Philip III the Bold, developed a more realistic image that would gradually become established.

At the feet of the effigies, usually those of women, dogs symbolise fidelity. But this fidelity is rather that of the guide dogs of the soul of the deceased in the subterranean realms of death. The lion, often at the feet of men, represents power, strength, but also the Resurrection, because a legend assured that the lion cub does not open its eyes until three days after birth.

In the Middle Ages, three effigies were generally sculpted for sovereigns:one for the entrails, one for the heart and one for the body. The king was thus honoured by three tombs. This multiplication of tombs resulted from the difficulty of preserving the body during its transportation. After death, the abdomen of the deceased was opened to remove the entrails. Followed by the ablation of the heart. A heart recumbent effigy is identified by the presence of a small heart sculpted in the left hand of the figure and an entrails recumbent effigy can be identified by the presence of a small bag in the hand of the figure. Saint-Denis housed the noblest recumbent effigies: the effigies of the body.

Body preservation techniques were rudimentary in the Middle Ages. During transportation, the body was covered with salt, spices and wine which played the role of an antiseptic. The most surprising aspect was the custom used at that time, in particular by Saint Louis, which was to boil the body in order to separate the flesh from the bone. When the sovereign died of dysentery in Carthage, the flesh of the holy king was buried in the Cathedral of Monreale, in Sicily, and the bones were transported to Saint-Denis. From the Col de la Chapelle, located in the north of Paris, to the royal abbey, Philip III the Bold carried the ashes of his father on his shoulders; a route that has since been marked by a series of seven pilgrimage stops identified by crosses and royal sculptures, Les Montjoies.

The three two-level tombs of Louis XII, Francis I and Catherine de Medici are built on the same model: on the lower level, the bodies of the sovereigns, presented "frozen stiff", naked and lifeless; on the upper level, the same figures kneeling in prayer in search of Paradise.

The invention of two-level Renaissance-style monuments probably arose from funeral ceremonies. On the death of the king, from the time of Charles VI to that of Henry IV, a funerary effigy of the king was created with a face in wax, which was given solemn meals several times a day. Lying in state, this model represented the permanence of the monarchy. On the day of the burial, the coffin was placed inside a catafalque, while the effigy was placed on another platform The tomb of Francis I celebrates the knight-king, victorious at Marignan in 1515, whereas that of Catherine de Medici celebrates religious and Catholic themes, and illustrates Italian Mannerist sensitivity.

Before the Revolution, all the royal bodies of mediaeval and Renaissance rulers were buried directly under the sculpted monuments. Because of a lack of space, the Bourbons, starting with Henry IV, were laid to rest in the central part of the crypt, which gradually became the burial vault of the Bourbons. These sovereigns were laid in plain lead coffins encased in wood.


4 - From revolutionary unrest to the restoration works of the 19th century

In 1792 the abbey was suppressed. In 1793, following the death of Louis XVI, the deputy Barère asked the Convention for the destruction of "monuments of feudalism and royalty", in particular  Saint-Denis. The Revolution thus attacked the symbolic power of the objects of the Ancien Régime. France, at war against all European nations for the defence of the Republic, needed metal to make weapons. This is why the lead roof of the basilica was melted down as well as several metal plates and tombs. In Saint-Denis, it was not the wrath of the people that carried out the destruction, but the Convention who, in August 1793, paid a contractor and workers to dismantle and destroy some of the tombs. But over 80% of the tombs were preserved thanks to the voluntary action of the Commission of Monuments, Dom Germain Poirier, a former Benedictine monk of Saint-Denis and the pugnacity of Alexandre Lenoir who, in Paris in 1795, opened the "Musée national des Monuments Français" in order to display numerous funerary sculptures from the basilica in it.

In autumn 1793, the royal remains buried in the tombs of the basilica were thrown, mixed with lime, into two mass graves in the cemetery north of the abbey, the current Pierre de Montreuil garden. Workmen, armed with pickaxes and crowbars, opened the coffins. A report on the exhumation of the bodies was drawn up by Dom Poirier, a scrupulous witness of these days. The first exhumed remains were those of Henry IV. The "Green Gallant" was so well preserved by natural mummification that he was put on display for two days against a pillar in the crypt. Louis XIV was as black as ink, probably due to the development of gangrene, the cause of his death. Louis XV had been carefully wrapped in linen and strips of material and seemed to be in good condition. But as soon as the body was lifted out it dissolved in “liquid putrefaction”. Today, none of these tombs contain any remains.

After the exhumations the abbey became a warehouse. Chateaubriand, in his “Génie du Christianisme”, describes this ruin: “Saint-Denis is deserted. Birds fly in and out, grass grows on its smashed altars and all one can hear is the dripping of water through its open roof”. The unfulfilled desire of Napoleon I to be buried in the basilica and install a burial place for emperors there led, in 1806, to the restoration of the monument. Religious worship was resumed in 1802.

In 1814, Louis XVIII ascended to the throne. The king worked relentlessly on restoring the basilica's character as a royal necropolis. He first ordered a search in the adjacent cemetery for the ashes of the kings exhumed by the Revolutionary authorities. After a week of work, several royal remains were unearthed and placed in an ossuary, which can still be seen in the crypt today.

On January 21st, 1815, the anniversary of the death of Louis XVI, he decided to transfer, with great ceremony, the ashes of the guillotined king and of Marie-Antoinette from the cemetery of the Madeleine (now the Chapelle Expiatoire) to Saint-Denis. He also had the remains of Louis VII and Louise of Lorraine, the wife of Henry III, returned there. The six slabs of black marble in the crypt, created in 1975, act as a remembrance of this transfer. One of them, bearing no inscription, was intended to receive the body of Charles X, the brother of Louis XVI and Louis XVIII, who died in exile in 1836 in Gorizia (Austria). His body is now preserved in the Franciscan monastery of Kostanjevica (Nova Gorica) in Slovenia. Plans to return his ashes never came to anything.

Throughout the 19th century, the basilica was the site of many experiments in restoration. It was no doubt the first great laboratory of restoration of a historic monument. By way of cleaning the stone, sometimes the facings were scraped to the point of removing ten centimetres of wall thickness. You can still see, even today, many traces of these restorations, especially on the exterior north facings.

The recumbent effigies were installed chronologically in the crypt from approximately 1816 to 1847, and then, thanks to the desire of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, they regained their original location. Napoleon I, who did not appreciate the difference in levels between the apse and nave, decided to raise the floor of the latter several metres, which illustrated the considerable work that took place in the basilica during the 19th century. In 1875, the royal tombs could be visited for an admission fee.

In 1837, lightning struck the spire of the North Tower which was 86 metres high. Quickly rebuilt by architect François Debret, it was entirely dismantled by Viollet-le-Duc in 1847. There is still a debate today to ascertain if this was to prevent more substantial damage to the masonry or to produce a good argument for rebuilding the façade. Viollet-le-Duc produced a project that was not validated.

The façade was transformed in the 18th century (the statue-columns and the Saint Denis were removed from the pier) as well as in 1840 by François Debret, which led to significantly transforming the very image of the façade of the building right up to today.

From 2012 to 2015, the façade of the cathedral was restored by the Ile-de-France Regional Direction of Cultural Affairs under the direction of Jacques Moulin, head architect for historic monuments.    



5 - Innovative architecture

The construction of the basilica was organised, over the centuries, around the tomb of Saint Denis. The different architectural structures erected here from the 5th century to the 13th century, the Carolingian church, the Basilica of Suger and the huge nave of Saint Louis, were all considered innovative masterpieces in their time.

Saint Denis and the archaeological crypt

The spiritual influence of Saint Denis greatly contributed to the temporal power of the abbey. The life of Denis, considered in several writings as the first bishop of Paris, though probably rather a missionary bishop, killed by the Roman authorities in around 280, is best known to us by the Passio written in the shadow of his tomb, from the 5th to 14th centuries. In the 5th century, this place of pilgrimage attracted the devotion of different royal dynasties. In the 9th century, 600 years after the death of the saint, the abbot of Saint-Denis, Hilduin, established what can be called the legend of Saint Denis. According to this account he was beheaded on the Butte Montmartre, the Mount of Martyrs, from where he carried his head in his hands right up to the current location of the basilica. This text helped to considerably increase the prestige of the Dionysian abbey. The episode of the cephalophore contributes notably to the spiritual edification of Christians by the pastoral sense it can take.

Though it cannot be confirmed, the rich and influential Parisian noblewoman, Saint Geneviève, who was very attached to Saint Denis, probably had the first building built, measuring 20 metres long by 9 metres wide, of which some foundation walls remain to this day. The desire of many aristocrats to be buried close to Saint Denis led to the expansion of the basilica in the 6th and 7th centuries.

In the 8th century, on the occasion of his coronation, Pepin the Short decided to rebuild the building in the manner of a Roman basilica. Today, in the huge archaeological crypt, filled with the earliest history of Saint-Denis, we can see a pit which preserves the memory of the location of the tomb and relics of Saint Denis and his two martyr companions, installed there until the 12th century. This pit is the centre of all the buildings constructed from the first chapel of the 4th or 5th century to the abbey of the 13th century.

The crypt also contains a rare example of Romanesque art in the Ile-de-France region. This space, much restored in the 19th and 20th centuries, nevertheless retains several historiated capitals of the 12th century, notably dedicated to the life of Saint Benedict, and foliated capitals. The massiveness of this space was used to support the new upper apse that the famous abbot of Saint-Denis, Suger, created in 1140.


Abbot Suger, the origins of Gothic art

This man, who was 'small in physical and social stature, driven by his dual smallness, refused, in his smallness, to be small'. This epitaph reflects the supposed humble origins of the prelate that are still a cause for debate. Suger (1081–1151), who was born near Saint-Denis, became an Oblate at the age of ten. Provost and then Abbot of Saint-Denis, he travelled extensively and had a special relationship with the pope, bishops and kings, serving as advisor to Louis VI and Louis VII. Diplomat, regent of France for two years at the end of his life, he died in Saint-Denis at the age of 70 – a respectable age in those days. This exceptional man, an excellent administrator and a meticulous chronicler of his work, made Saint-Denis one of the most powerful abbeys of the kingdom, enriched by the royal gifts.

Suger is one of the central figures of the abbey of Saint-Denis. From 1135, he devoted himself to the reconstruction of the old Carolingian building. From 1140 to 1144, he built in "three years, three months, three days", as he put it, a new light-flooded apse. This prestigious new architecture was a reflection of the rapidly expanding Capetian kingdom. Resulting from the synthesis of European technical experiments, it was linked to a theological conception of light inspired by the mystical texts of Pseudo-Dionysius, one of the fundamental references used in teaching at the time. Through his innovative architectural vision, Suger sanctioned the birth in the Ile-de-France region of what Italian detractors of the Renaissance disdainfully termed Gothic art.

The new light-flooded apse was better suited to the display of the relics of saints venerated by the pilgrims who were arriving in increasingly large numbers Indeed, the smallness of the Carolingian crypt, where the relics were kept, led to serious difficulties during pilgrimages. The crowd was so dense that, according to Suger, some women found it oppressive and fainted or died uttering harrowing cries.

In addition, the architectural originality of the apse, whose upper sections were rebuilt in the 13th century, resided in the use of a forest of monolithic columns, supporting one of the first ribbed vaults to be successfully built. This space was like a huge reliquary flooded with coloured light housing the relics of the saint. The lack of walls between the chapels and the doubling of the glass surface in each prayer space created an exceptional wall of continuous light.

The apse was consecrated on June 11th, 1144, during a procession led by King Louis VII and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Around 20 bishops, many abbots and the papal legate transported the three silver reliquaries of the holy martyrs from the dark, narrow Carolingian crypt to the new apse. Set in a magnificent gleaming gold and silver altar that has since disappeared, the relics were bathed in light and visible to all, from every part of the church. Today, the 19th-century altar still houses three reliquaries containing bones.


The church's finery: the stained-glass windows

Of the 12th-century stained glass all that remains in Saint-Denis are five windows and a few elements removed in 1997 for restoration. They are currently replaced by photographic films. In the 12th century, the services of a master stained-glass maker were retained for the maintenance of the windows, which was extremely rare. This shows the importance that Suger attached to these walls of light.

The subjects depicted are rich, complex and essentially meant for erudite monks. The major themes of the 12th-century west façade, which presents the Old Testament as the prefiguration of the New Testament, culminate in the window illustrating the life of Moses and in the one Suger called the anagogic window, meaning the one "leading upwards".

The central chapel is home to the theme of the tree of Jesse, famous throughout the Middle Ages, which is presented for the first time in a building. This simplified genealogy of Jesus is the one found at the beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew. But for Suger, it is also an ideal image of royalty. Presented by Richelieu as the first great servant of the monarchy, Abbot Suger helped entrench the idea that the Capetian King, a new image of Christ on earth, cannot be anyone's vassal, if not of the blessed Denis.

The stained-glass windows on the upper parts of the building, created in the 19th century, were commissioned by architects Debret and Viollet-le-Duc. The mediaeval stained-glass of the upper windows had been destroyed during the Revolution in order to recover the lead. In the upper parts of the choir, the windows recount the legend of Saint Denis and several episodes of the history of the basilica. In the nave, the long gallery of kings and queens ends in two huge rose windows. The South Rose is a stone structure of over 14 metres in diameter, which supposedly served as a model for the one in Notre Dame in Paris. This wheel of light depicts, around the central figure of God, angels, the twelve signs of the Zodiac representing the course of the sun and 24 agricultural tasks that are carried out during the year.

The coloured glass, a very rare commodity in the Middle Ages, is magnified. Saint Bernard compared it to the Virgin Mary. Light passes through it without destroying it, just as the Virgin gave life to Jesus while remaining pure. This comparison demonstrates the interest in stained-glass windows. Its role in theological education aimed at a largely illiterate population combines with the spiritual wonderment created by thousands of small patches of coloured light. Together, the stained-glass windows contrive to give the building the image of a fabulous city that likens it to the heavenly Jerusalem.


Rayonnant Gothic architecture

In 1231, Saint Louis was already contributing financially to the reconstruction of the abbey-church, a major work of 13th-century Gothic art. The works were completed in 1281, in less than fifty years, which provides an indication of the abbey’s immense wealth. Pierre de Montreuil, one of the main architects of the time, prime contractor of part of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and the refectory at Saint-Germain-des-Prés, may have contributed to this major undertaking of the century but his intervention is still under debate.

The basilica gives a powerful impression of height. The master builders used pillars composed of several small columns engaged with one another and each of them matching up with the ribs of the various arches of the vaulted roof. This style of architecture draws the eye of the visitor unconsciously upwards from the base of the pillar to the beginning of the vaulting of the roof. Hence, the 28-metre height of the roof appears much greater. Gothic architecture, known in those days as “French art”, reached its apogee in that century. The huge size of the buildings was the result of the rapid advance in construction techniques, the use of flying buttresses and the way in which building sites were organised. The quest for the greatest height possible joined, in the 13th century, a desire to create an emptiness within the building so that it became a setting bathed in light.


The Treasury and Regalia.

The basilica’s treasury, an assortment of disparate objects used in worship and items from collections bequeathed by wealthy abbots or kings, was one of the biggest in the Middle Ages.

For Suger, the treasury was the church's finery. It was a privileged means of access to divinity by the transformation that the effect of beauty has on the soul. Suger's love of beauty, precious stones, gold and antiques led him to significantly enrich this treasure. At the entrance of the present choir was a cross of almost seven metres high bearing a gilded silver Christ. For ceremonies, the chapels, which are now decorated with 13th-century altarpieces, were adorned with relics and valuable liturgical objects such as Eleanor of Aquitaine’s vase, Suger’s eagle or Charles the Bald’s porphyry bathtub, all of which are now at the Louvre. But these liturgical objects were also monetary reserves. Thus, in the 14th century, a Saint-Denis abbot did not hesitate to have a gold statue of Saint John melted down to pay for the services of the abbey’s butcher.

 "Regalia", the symbols of royal power used during coronations – crowns, sceptres and hands of justice – were also deposited in the abbey’s treasury.

Several exceptional pieces of the treasury, which were partly melted down in 1793 and under Napoleon, are now conserved in the Louvre, in the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque Nationale and in foreign museums. In the 19th century, Louis XVIII commissioned new objects for use as royal insignia during funeral ceremonies. These are on display in one of the basilica’s chapels.

This presentation is only a first approach to the history of the monument, which because of its great importance in European history has an immense bibliography. Here you will find some synthesized works published by the Editions du Patrimoine.


6 - Some essential tombs 

The tomb of Dagobert

The first king buried in the basilica, in 639, and considered to be the abbey’s founder. The monks paid him homage in the 13th century by making an exceptionally large tomb which is now in its original position in the sanctuary. His recumbent effigy, lying on its left side, looks towards the location of the early tomb of Saint Denis. The three carved panels on the tomb tell the story of the vision of the hermit John. The king’s soul, depicted as a naked child wearing a crown, is carried off to Hell on account of his nasty habit of disposing of the property of certain churches. But in the upper panel, Saint Denis, Saint Martin and Saint Maurice seize the soul from the hands of the demons and take it off to Heaven where it is granted entry to Paradise. This vision expresses Saint Denis’ and the abbey’s role as protector of the Capetian monarchy.


The recumbent effigy of Isabella of Aragon, wife of Philip III the Bold

Isabella died while crossing a ford during her return from a crusade, while she was pregnant. This tomb from the late 13th century launched a style that would have place of honour throughout the 14th century. Her tomb is realistic in its depiction of the flowing folds of her clothing. The white marble, formerly enhanced with different colours, is on a black marble plinth on which is engraved a rhyming epitaph in French. This tombstone is the only one that was left intact during the Revolution, thanks to its fine non-religious inscription.


The recumbent effigy of Charles V

At the age of 27, king Charles V, known as the Wise and a great patron of the arts, commissioned his recumbent effigy from André Beauneveu, one of the most celebrated sculptors of the time. It is doubtless the first official portrait in the history of funerary sculpture. This recumbent effigy is one of the masterpieces of mediaeval sculpture.

The tomb of Louis XII

The mausoleum of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany was sculpted in Carrara marble by Italian sculptors. It bears witness to the contacts that were established between artists during the Italian wars This small antique-style temple is surrounded by the twelve Apostles and the four cardinal virtues, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance, and the plinth is decorated with bas-reliefs illustrating several victorious episodes of the Italian wars.

Inside the mausoleum, the royal couple is portrayed as "frozen stiff" and motionless in death. For the sake of realism, on their abdomens the sewn-up openings made for the purposes of evisceration are depicted. On the upper level the kneeling sovereigns pray for the life to come. This dual image of the sovereigns’ bodies offers Christians a moment of meditation on death and the Resurrection.


The tomb of Francis I and Claude of France

The tomb of Francis I, his wife Claude of France and three of their children was built in 1558, around 10 years after the king’s death. The desire of Henry II, the son of the deceased king and the one who commissioned the tomb, was to ensure the posthumous memory of the knight-king and chief of the army by exalting the famous battle of Marignan of which he was the victor at the age of 20 years. What is striking is the extreme documentary precision in the bas-relief which recalls the 1515 battle that took place near Milan. It details several episodes: the preparations, crossing the Alps and the confrontation of the two armies. At the head of the French army and German mercenaries, Francis I as a knight, recognisable by the "F" monogram on the saddle of his horse; at his side Baillard, who faces a coalition of the pontifical army and the Swiss.

Inside the tomb, the royal couple is depicted life-size with striking realism. Francis I was almost two metres tall. On the upper level, the kneeling sovereigns are accompanied by three of their children. They express hope in the Resurrection but also the family character of the mausoleum.

The king’s heart and entrails were interred in the abbey in Hautes-Bruyères near Rambouillet. The practice of evisceration survived until the 16th century. The ancient practice of placing heart and entrails in funeral urns was also revived. The urn carved in marble by Pierre Bontemps, which is now in the basilica, celebrates Francis I as a patron and protector of the arts. The cartouches forming the decoration represent Architecture, Geometry, Sculpture and Painting. There is also the emblem of the king, the salamander, a symbol of courage and eternity.


The Tomb of Catherine de Medici

Henry II, king of France (1547-1559), husband of Catherine de Medici, died prematurely following a tournament which took place at the Place des Tournelles in Paris, now the Place des Vosges. The queen ruled through her three sons for many years without ever putting aside her mourning dress. In Saint-Denis she had a huge rotunda built to the north of the abbey, 30 metres in diameter, to accommodate the burial place of her husband and his family, the Valois. The mausoleum’s plan, following the circular shape of tombs from antiquity, is now recreated in the Pierre de Montreuil garden to the north of the basilica. However, this project, conducted in the middle of the Wars of Religion, would never be fully completed. Threatening ruin, "the rotunda of the Valois" was demolished in the early 18th century, at the request of the monks of the abbey.

The tomb of Henry II and Catherine de Medici, built between 1560 and 1573 and positioned at the centre of the rotunda, was thus installed inside the basilica. The greatest artists of the Renaissance worked on this major project, including Francesco Primaticcio, Italian sculptor Jacquio Ponce and Frenchman Germain Pilon. This monumental group is enhanced by marble in different colours, a practice directly inspired by the new Italian spirit. What attracts the most attention are the monumental bronze virtues in the four corners of the tomb, striking examples of Mannerist art.

Once the work of the sculptors was finished, Catherine de Medici thought her "frozen stiff sculpture" to be too macabre and emaciated; she refused it and had a second one sculpted that can now be seen in Saint-Denis. The first one was presented to the Louvre museum and contrasts sharply with the version in Saint-Denis, which depicts the queen in a gentle sleep. The latter is said to have taken its inspiration from a Venus in the Uffizi museum in Florence.

The two effigies of Henry II and Catherine de Medici, located in a chapel in the northern part of the apse, were sculpted wearing their coronation robes with their eyes wide open and can be seen as marble replicas of funeral effigies with faces of wax made for royal funerals.


7 – Birth of the town of Saint-Denis

The town of Saint-Denis was built in the shadows of the monastery. The royal favours, buoyant economic activity, in particular thanks to the mediaeval fairs (the Saint-Denis fair, the Lendit fair and the fair of Saint Matthias), enabled rich and sustainable development of the monastic town from Carolingian times. Pepin the Short had the first wall built which thus protected the town in a virtually circular space. In the 14th century, the town developed considerably especially to the west. A fortified wall surrounded the town from the 15th century.

To the north of the abbey-church, a network of chapels for funeral purposes began to form from the Merovingian period. Until the destruction of the Huguenots, these churches became parish churches, drawing a huge semicircle that bordered the cemetery. The space, now circumscribed by the gates of Pierre de Montreuil garden, delimits the old monastic space. The cemetery, where archaeologists have identified more than 40 levels of occupation since the 6th century, contains more than 20,000 graves!

On the occasion of the creation of the ZAC (urban development zone) in 1974, north of the Cathedral, urban excavations of considerable significance, which were carried out under the direction of the Archaeology Unit of the city of Saint-Denis, completely renewed awareness of the site. Thousands of objects of all kinds have been discovered and are still under study and publication.

The square in front of the abbey, called "Panetière" in the Middle Ages (the place where they sold bread twice a week), has always been a place of flourishing trade. Still today, part of the huge market of Saint-Denis, which takes place three times a week, is held at the exact spot where the Lendit fair was relocated from the 15th century to flee insecure areas of Lendit, which is the present site of the Stade de France.

To the south of the abbey, several construction campaigns for monastic buildings were conducted, one after another, notably from the 12th century. More than 150 monks were under the responsibility of the abbey. In the 18th century, the mediaeval buildings were entirely rebuilt under the direction of Robert de Cotte to be transformed into a house of education of the Legion of Honour for girls by Napoleon in 1802. This institution still houses a school for 400 girls whose parents or grandparents have received the Legion of Honour or the National Order of Merit. These buildings have just been systematically restored, notably the gardens of the cloister.

The city of Saint-Denis is undergoing significant development. Boosted by the success of the World Cup in 1998, this cosmopolitan town never ceases to change. The basilica is an essential point of reference in the heart of the city.

This presentation is only a first approach to the history of the monument, which because of its great importance in European history has an immense bibliography. Here you will find some synthesized works published by the Editions du Patrimoine.

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