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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the Basilique de Saint-Denis

What is the Basilique de Saint-Denis?

The Basilique de Saint-Denis, also known as Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis, or The Basilica of Saint-Denis in English, imposing 12th-century gothic church with the burials of almost every French king from the 10th to the 18th century.

Basilique de Saint-Denis

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Basilique de Saint-Denis History

Welcome to the birthplace of the Gothic. You may be surprised to find yourself beyond the Périphérique and over nine kilometres from the centre of Paris, but in the Middle Ages this suburb functioned as an important commercial hub. Its celebrated fair, the Foire du Lendit, was thriving until the 16th century. Except for the Stade de France, headquarters of French rugby and football, the draw to the north suburbs of Paris is the spectacular Basilique Royale de Saint-Denis. It’s home to the burial site of the patron saint of France, Saint Denis. Under the supervision of Abbot Suger, the abbey was the first structure to fully move away from the Romanesque style and create the Gothic in the 12th century, a style that’s characterized by pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses. And from the 10th to the 18th century, nearly every single French king was buried here. This is an abbey, a basilica, a cathedral, and a royal necropolis.

The story goes that a certain Dionysius – Denis in French – was sent to Lutetia (the Roman settlement on the site of Paris) in the middle of the 3rd century as a missionary apostle. He was so effective that soon he and his companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius, were marched to a druidic holy place on top of the highest hill in Paris, Montmarte, where their heads were swiftly severed. Refusing to stop his preaching, an unruffled Denis picked up his head and walked north to the Gallo-Roman settlement Catolacus where he was finally buried. His grave became a shrine, a pilgrimage site, and ultimately the foundations of the Abbey of Saint Denis, laid in the late 5th century. Denis was deemed the first bishop of Paris and by the 12th century he had replaced Saint Martin of Tours as the patron saint of France. King Dagobert founded a Benedictine monastery here in the 7th century and was the first Frankish king to be buried close to the saintly Denis. Abbot Fulrad built a substantial church on the site in the 8th century, but it was almost entirely replaced by the 12th-century Abbot Suger, under whose direction architecture changed forever.

This is where the celebrated pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses of the Gothic made their full entrance into the world. In a Romanesque church the windows were small, the arches were smoothly curved, and the columns were few and thick, bearing the full brunt of a vaulted ceiling. Suger’s innovations originated in his attempt to meet two challenges. First, he felt encumbered by a need to acknowledge the growing power of the monarch; under Louis VI and Louis VII the French state was undergoing the greatest move towards centralisation since the times of Charlemagne. Louis VI entrusted the abbey with the oriflamme (the military standard) as well as the royal insignia and coronation regalia.

Second, Suger sought in the creation of Saint Denis to marry his theological and architectural principles. He was a follower of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, an enigmatic theologian and philosopher who expounded on the divinity of light. As images of heaven on earth, churches ought to transport the believer closer to the divine; how better to accomplish this transportation than by flooding the church with ‘wonderful and uninterrupted light’. By using pointed arches, the pressure from the weight of the ceiling was directed straight down the column. This allowed for thinner, more elegant columns to be used and vaulting that combined round and pointed ribs. The result was a dramatically taller, airier and more spacious building.

Saint-Denis was renovated in the 13th century, its architectural principles pushed even further in the ‘Rayonnant Gothic’ style. In the 18th century, the basilica’s synonymity with royalty excused its desecration during the French Revolution: the tombs were ransacked, the bodies dumped into mass graves, and the lead stolen from the roof. But the building recovered, and its restoration continues to this day.

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