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The recumbents of the Basilique cathédrale Saint-Denis

The royal necropolis of the Basilique cathédrale Saint-Denis has more than 70 recumbents and tombs. We discover the history of France in pictures. Come and admire these sumptuous funerary monuments sculpted in memory of the kings and queens of France!

An impressive collection of medieval sculpture

43 kings, 32 queens, 60 princes and princesses, a dozen servants of the monarchy are buried in the old abbey of Saint-Denis since Dagobert in 639 until Louis XVIII in 1824.

However, the first recumbents   They date from the 13th century, from the time of Louis IX, the famous Saint Louis. Indeed, he had a series of sixteen sculptures made to the glory of his distant Merovingian, Carolingian and Capetian predecessors buried in Saint-Denis. Walking through the transept, you can admire fourteen of the sixteen original monuments, initially painted in bright colors, including those of Pepin the Short, of Berthe known as "the Great Foot" or of Louis VI known as "the Fat".

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Capetian and Valois sovereigns, such as Philip IV the Fair, Louis X the Hutin, Charles VI or Isabeau of Bavaria were sculpted in marble and represented in coronation costume with crown, scepter and hand of justice. They are more and more individualized, so the recumbent of Charles V, made during his lifetime, is a real portrait of the Valois king, builder of the castle of Vincennes.

Gisants de Charles VI et Isabeau de Bavière, marbre, XIVe siècle

© Pascal Lemaître / Centre des monuments nationaux

The recumbents, the faith in the Resurrection

Animals, lions and dogs, symbols of strength and loyalty, appear at their feet. All the effigies have their eyes open, a sign of faith in the Resurrection. And the eyes are turned towards the East, towards the rising sun, symbol of the divine light and of Christ.

Surprisingly, a tripartite burial of the sovereign (body, heart, entrails) is practiced in order to better preserve him because sometimes he died very far from the royal necropolis! Three recumbents were then made in three different places. The body, containing the skeleton, was considered more noble and was buried in Saint-Denis, while the hearts and entrails were often buried in Parisian churches.

The basilica of Saint-Denis also shelters other illustrious characters, of which only the recumbents were brought back after the Revolution, like Clovis, Childebert, Frédégonde, or Charles I, duke of Orleans, poet of the XVth century.

Gisant de coeur de Charles d'Anjou, frère de Saint Louis, marbre, vers 1326

© Pascal Lemaître / Centre des monuments nationaux

The sumptuous tombs of the Renaissance

In the sixteenth century, the Renaissance tombs of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany, Francis I and Claude de France Henri II and Catherine de Medici are monumental and influenced by ancient architecture. They are built on a new model: on the lower floor, the bodies of the sovereigns, the "transis", are presented naked and lifeless; on the upper floor, the same characters are kneeling, in prayer, in search of Paradise.

Are there any names you feel are missing from this list? Indeed, if they were indeed buried in Saint-Denis, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Bourbons, like the famous Henri IV or Louis XIV, never had sculpted tombs!

In October 1793, the royal bodies were exhumed by the revolutionaries in order to recover the lead from their coffins to make bullets for the war. They were then piled up in two common graves in the cemetery, near the church. In 1817, Louis XVIII had the bones searched for and ordered them to be buried in an ossuary in the crypt, where the long list of the sovereigns of Saint-Denis can still be read. He also ordered two funerary statues dedicated to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, whose remains he had brought from Paris.

Priants du tombeau de François Ier et Claude de France, marre, vers 1558

© Pascal Lemaître / Centre des monuments nationaux

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