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History of the monument

Are you familiar with the Basilique de Saint-Denis, built in the XIIᵉ and XIIIᵉ centuries? A jewel of Gothic art and a royal necropolis, it houses a unique collection of 70 recumbents and a spectacular set of stained glass windows. Just a stone's throw from Paris, dive into the thousand-year-old adventure of this former abbey church, a cathedral since 1966 and also a place of culture.

The Basilique cathédrale Saint-Denis, last residence of the kings of France

A royal necropolis, cradle of the history of France

Built on the tomb of Saint Denis, a missionary bishop who died around 250, a first church was probably built in the 5th century.

From the death of King Dagobert, in 639, until the 19th century, the abbey of Saint-Denis welcomed the burial of 43 kings, 32 queens and a dozen servants of the monarchy. It gradually became the most important collection in Europe of funerary sculptures made from the 12th to the 16th century. This role as a royal necropolis earned it the nickname "the cemetery of kings " by a 13th century chronicler. Today, the monument houses no less than 70 recumbents   and tombs.

As you walk through the Basilique cathédrale Saint-Denis and its crypt, you will come across the most famous kings and queens of France. They testify to the power of the greatest French dynasties, from the Merovingians to the Capetians, through the Carolingians. Discover the effigies of Dagobert, Pepin the Short, Anne of Brittany, François I, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, or the tomb of Henri II and Catherine de'Medici!

Basilique Saint-Denis gisants transept
Gisants dans le sud du transept de la basilique Saint-Denis

© Pascal Lemaître / Centre des monuments nationaux

The myth of Saint Denis

If the Basilique cathédrale Saint-Denis is the last residence of the kings of France, it is not by chance! Did you know that it houses one of the most important Christian martyrs who became the patron saint of France in the Middle Ages?

Let's go back a few centuries, to the death of Bishop Denis. He was sent to evangelize Gaul, then martyred and beheaded by the Romans in Lutetia, in the first century if we are to believe the official tradition until the 18th century, but more likely in the third century.

His life was rewritten in the 9th century by Abbot Hilduin of Saint-Denis, who integrated several ancient stories and legends, the most famous of which, that of cephalophoria, asserted that the bishop would have picked up his head at Montmartre before walking northwards while reciting prayers! Then he would have collapsed in Catulliacus (the current city of Saint-Denis), where the basilica was built.

Very quickly, the place is the object of local veneration and attracts from the end of the fourth century the burial of many aristocrats francs and even a queen, Arégonde, beautiful daughter of Clovis, around 580. Then little by little, the kings and queens of France placed themselves under the protection of Saint Denis, hoping to obtain eternal salvation!

Learn more about the royal burials in the Basilique cathédrale Saint-Denis.

Saint Denis portant sa tête après sa décollation, Tympan du portail nord

© Pascal Lemaître / Centre des monuments nationaux

The Basilique cathédrale Saint-Denis: the first Gothic abbey church

In addition to being intimately linked to the history of the kings of France, the building is considered one of the cradles of Gothic art.

In the 12th century, the Saint-Denis basilica was established as a new architectural masterpiece under the impetus of Abbot Suger, advisor to Louis VI and Louis VII. It was gradually rebuilt in a new style, with innovative principles for the time, such as the ribbed vaults.

The church is bathed in light, symbol of the divine, thanks to an exceptional glass surface. Considered as a major construction of the Gothic art, it will contribute to the production of new buildings in all Europe!

The 12th-13th century basilica, as we know it today, is 108 meters long and its vaults reach 29 meters. Its immense transept is illuminated by two sumptuous roses of more than 12 meters in diameter which served as a model for Notre-Dame de Paris.

Vue sur la rose Nord

© Serge Santos / Centre des monuments nationaux

A monument that has lived through troubled times

Looted during the Hundred Years' War and the Wars of Religion, the site experienced dark times, notably with the disappearance of the tomb of Saint Louis in the 15th century.

Following the Revolution, in 1792, the monks had to leave their buildings, whose reconstruction had just been completed. In October 1793, the royal bodies of the Bourbons were exhumed from the lead tombs, as France was at war and needed metal to make bullets. In 1794, the Commission of Arms and Powder ordered the removal of the roof made of lead sheets.

Disused, the ruined building was more or less exposed to the elements for many years. It was then transformed into a theater and a warehouse for flour and wheat!

However, under the impulse of Châteaubriant, at the beginning of the Empire, Napoleon I decided to restore the monument to dedicate it to the burial of the emperors and to remind the memory of the former kings. The basilica is saved!

Thus the bodies of the kings buried before the Revolution are no longer located under the recumbents! The Revolution piled them up in two common graves in the old cemetery north of the church. In 1817, Louis XVIII, the new Bourbon king, decided to have the mixed remains of the sovereigns searched for and reburied in an ossuary in the crypt, the former vault of Turenne.

Peinture de François-Joseph Heim présentant le transfert des cendres royaux dans la basilique le 18 janvier 1817, huile sur toile, sacristie de la basilique

© Pascal Lemaître / Centre des monuments nationaux

The Basilique cathédrale Saint-Denis, a treasure of French heritage

Many transformations took place during the first half of the 19th century. In 1809, Napoleon signed the decree for the installation of the educational center of the Legion of Honor, which is still in place today, in the old monastic buildings.

Then, in 1813, Napoleon I commissioned the architect François Debret to restore the building. A colossal project was undertaken throughout the monument: stained glass windows, facades, floors, vaults and sculptures were restored. However, the work was contested from the 1830s onwards and gave rise to controversy, culminating in the question of the north spire. On June 9, 1837, lightning struck the 90 m high spire, Debret had it repaired, but the tornado of 1845 weakened it again, which precipitated the departure of the architect and his replacement by Viollet-le-Duc.

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc tried to eliminate Debret's interventions, and then he replaced the royal tombs in their former locations. He obtains to dismount the whole of the northern tower as of 1847 in the hope of reassembling it as soon as possible, but within the framework of a very personal project!

This project will finally see the light of day in... 2024, since the tower and the north spire will be reassembled identically within the framework of a project of valorization of the trades of the heritage under the direction of the association Suivez la Flèche !

The basilica was elevated to the rank of cathedral in 1966, when the diocese and the department of Seine-Saint-Denis were created. Managed today by the Centre des monuments nationaux, the Basilique cathédrale Saint-Denis is undoubtedly a monument symbolizing the history of France!

Extérieur basilique Saint-Denis et Maison éducation Légion d’honneur
La basilique Saint-Denis et la Maison de l’éducation de la Légion d’honneur

© Pascal Lemaître / Dist. Centre des monuments nationaux