A must-see

article | Reading time5 min

Stained glass windows, symbols of the divine

The luminous Basilique cathédrale Saint-Denis, nicknamed the Lantern (Lucerna) until the XVIIIᵉ century, is home to a set of exceptional stained glass windows. Come and admire their details and colors!

Stained glass, an art of light

In the 12th century, Abbot Suger, who had the abbey rebuilt, decided to transform it into a veritable temple of light. The various radiating chapels of the chevet were fitted with immense colored glass windows.

Let's stop for a moment on the architecture at that time. It was time for the gothic movement, with its slender walls of increasing height. The builders of the gothic style tried, by the hollowing out of the walls and the colored windows, to materialize the correspondences between the divine and the light that we find in many medieval texts. And the stained glass windows contribute to this feeling, while delivering a strong iconographic message.

The church looks more and more like the heavenly Jerusalem described by St. John in the Apocalypse (XXI, 10-24): "It had the brilliance of a very precious stone, such as crystalline jasper. [The wall was built of jasper, and the city was pure gold like crystal; the foundations of the city wall were covered with all kinds of precious stones.... Moreover, the city needs neither the sun nor the moon to light it, for the glory of God illuminates it and its lamp is the Lamb."

Suger, at the laying of the first stone of the chevet on July 14, 1140, writes that some people lay precious stones out of love for Jesus Christ and singing: "All your walls are precious stones."

La nef XIIIe siècle de la basilique

© Centre des monuments nationaux

The stained glass windows of the XIIᵉ century

The earliest stained glass windows, put in place before 1144, illustrate the connections between scenes from the Old Testament and the New Testament through Christ, who is the connecting link. They encourage reflection and meditation by the abbey's scholarly monks. This is the case, in particular, of the Childhood of Christ, the Tree of Jesse, or the stained glass windows known as anagogic, that is to say "that lead upwards".

These stained glass windows, commissioned by Suger in the 12th century, were transported to the Museum of French Monuments. They were then partially rebuilt during the 19th century, under the direction of the architect Debret, then Viollet-le-Duc.

The 12th century stained glass windows were removed in 1997, then restored, but too fragile to be returned to the basilica. In April 2023 of splendid copies out of glass give again all its splendour with the chevet of the basilica!

L’annonciation, XIIe siècle. L’abbé Suger est allongé en prière au pied de la Vierge


Religious and historical scenes

During the French Revolution, many stained glass windows were dismantled to recover the lead. Those of the high parts are entirely remade in the middle of the XIXth century under the direction of the architect François Debret.

The stained glass windows of the high windows of the chevet, made in the 19th century, represent the legend of Saint-Denis, as well as episodes of the history of the basilica. Similarly, the stained glass windows in the triforium of the nave evoke the lives of popes, kings and queens of France.

Finally, the south rose, restored in 2021, illustrates the Creation according to the biblical text, with the figure of God in the center, surrounded by the six days of creation, angels and signs of the zodiac. All around, the different agricultural works carried out over a year are evoked. A little anecdote: this rose of more than twelve meters in diameter would have served as a model for the one of Notre-Dame de Paris!

Splendid, the stained glass windows of the Basilique cathédrale Saint-Denis make the monument a place bathed in light, conducive to meditation.

La rose nord de la basilique, l’arbre de Jessé, vers 1840

© François Debret / Centre des monuments nationaux

also to discover