The royal basilica of Saint-Denis belonged to a prosperous and powerful Benedictine abbey during the Middle Ages and was the first monumental masterpiece of Gothic art. Enlarged in the 7th century through the impetus of Dagobert 1 (639 AD) who was buried there, followed by his son Clovis II (657 AD), the monastery quickly became one of the main burial sites for the Merovingian dynasty. From the time of Hugues Capet (987-996), the first Capetian monarch, the basilica was firmly established as the definitive “Cemetery of Kings”. It continued to develop, and proceeded to become one of the most powerful Benedictine abbeys of the Middle Ages. The royal necropolis contains tombs of French kings with remarkable funerary sculpture dating from 12th to 16th centuries.
According to legend, Denis or Dionysius was first converted to Christianity in Athens by the Apostle Paul (though he was born in Italy). After Paul's death, Denis was sent on a mission to Gaul to convert the native pagans to Christianity, accompanied by two companions, the priest Rusticus and the deacon Eleutherius. Denis was soon appointed the first bishop of Paris. He was beheaded on the slopes of Montmartre (Mount of Martyrs) around 258 but then walked away with his severed head in his hands beyond the center of Paris, preaching along the way, before dying. Various 5th-9th century legends say he was buried in a clandestine ceremony after his martyrdom near the Roman town of Catolacus, about 11 km north of Paris. He is venerated in the Roman Catholic Church as patron of Paris, France, and as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.
The site originated as a Gallo-Roman cemetery, in late Roman times – the archeological remains still lie beneath the cathedral. In about 475 AD, Saint Denis was reburied (or buried here originally?) in a Gallo-Roman cemetery at the eventual site of the monastery named for him. Around the year 331, the date of Constantine’s edict imposing “Peace of the Church,” a small chapel was built as a shrine on the burial site. St. Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, enlarged the shrine to a small church to commemorate the life of St. Denis, whose burial site had begun to attract many pilgrims. During the reign of Clovis (481-511) the abbey was chosen as the sepulcher for the remains of the Frankish aristocracy. Queen Aregund, who died around 580, was the great grandmother of Dagobert and the first royal to be buried in the Church of Saint-Denis. This small Merovingian church was enlarged between 630-638 by Dagobert, the official founder of the abby of Saint-Denis and he was also buried here in 639. Charles Martel (741 AD) vowed particular devotion to Saint Denis, and asked to be laid to rest in the abbey church. His son, Pepin the Short (768 AD), the first Sovereign of the Carolingian dynasty, was anointed king in a lavish ceremony at the monastery in 754 as was his son Charlemagne at the same ceremony (due to the expectation of a short lifetime). Pepin vowed to enlarge the cathedral although work began after his death. From 769 to 775 Abbot Fulrad created a new building, comprised of one immense nave divided into three by two lines of marble columns, a transept and an apse, all in all measuring more than 80 meters long in the Romanesque style.
The 12th century was marked by the arrival of Abbot Suger. An exceptional character, adviser of Louis VI and Louis VII, Suger dedicated his life to the State and the Church, and spent his life building the basilica. Abbot Suger decided in about 1137, to rebuild the great Church of Saint-Denis, which was then the principle cathedral of France. It was the site of the Coronation of Pepin the Younger in 754 by Pope Stephen II, by this time a royal mortuary and an apse which he maintained was the original from the first abbey church that, according to legend, Dagobert I constructed and Christ consecrated.
Suger began with the West front, reconstructing the original Carolingian façade with its single door. He designed the façade of Saint-Denis to be an echo of the Roman Arch of Constantine with its three-part division and three large portals to ease the problem of congestion. The facade was conceived as a tribute to the Trinity and was comprised of two towers linked by a castle-like parapet symbolizing Heavenly Jerusalem. The decor of the three portals should be considered the birth of Gothic sculpture. In 1836, the steeple on the north tower, which rose to a height of 86 metres, was struck by lightening. Quickly rebuilt by the architect Debret, it had to be taken down in 1845 (because of cracks in the masonry) by Viollet-Le-Duc. Thus the western facade is assymetrical. Also note that the top of the windows are still round, not pointed as in later Gothic construction.
The tympanum of the central portal represents Christ, who sits enthroned in the Last Judgment; He judges those who pass through the gates of heaven. The right portal shows the last communion of Saint Denis and his two companions. The tympanum of the left portal is dedicated to their martyrdom. The rose window above the West portal is the earliest-known such example, although Romanesque circular windows preceded it in general form. Interestingly, you cannot actually see the rose window from the nave.
Beneath the choir is a crypt full of the bones of previous royal occupants and presumably Saint Denis. Suger's “new” 12th century choir was built above a surviving crypt, thus solving the problem of disturbing this sacred location. Part of the crypt includes what survives of the Carolingian church dedicated in 775, this remaining apse was also a martyrium for the relics of St. Denis and other important Christian figures.
In 1959, Michel Fleury uncovered an exceptionally rich grave beneath the basilica. The stone sarcophagus held clothing and the remains of textiles, all in a remarkable state of conservation, thus allowing us to reconstruct the garments of a noblewoman from the Merovingian era. On her thumb, a ring inscribed with a woman's given name, ARNEGUNDIS, surrounding a central monogram that can be expanded to REGINE (queen). Arnegunde was the third wife of Clothar I and mother to Chilperich I. She died around 580 nearly twenty years later than her husband. She was buried in St. Denis in Paris in a stone sarcophagus. Her dress was made of precious Byzantine silks and adorned with jewels. The jewels have been transferred to the Musée d'Archéologie Nationale in the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
The central chapel of the crypt, built east of the Carolingian portion, was connected to it with a long arcade, now lined with graves. This chapel in the crypt, also known as the Abbot Hilduin Chapel, was remodeled a number of times and contains important column capitals. The massive thick walls and heavy columns date from the 12th century when this basement structure was necessary to support the new choir of Abbot Sugar.
At the completion of the west front in 1140, Abbot Suger moved on to the reconstruction of the eastern end, leaving the Romanesque Carolingian nave in use. He designed a choir (chancel) that would be filled with light. To achieve his aims, his masons drew on the several new features which evolved or had been introduced to Romanesque architecture, the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, the ambulatory with radiating chapels, the clustered columns supporting ribs springing in different directions and the flying buttresses which enabled the insertion of large clerestory windows. It was the first time that these features had all been drawn together in one building.
In 1231, Abbot Odo Clement began work on the rebuilding of the Carolingian nave, which remained sandwiched incongruously between Suger's far more up-to-date Gothic works to the east and west. The dark Romanesque nave, with its thick walls and small window openings, was rebuilt using the very latest techniques, in what is now known as Rayonnant Gothic. This new style, which differed from Suger's earlier works as much as they had differed from their Romanesque precursors, reduced the wall area to an absolute minimum. Solid masonry was replaced with vast window openings filled with brilliant stained glass (most destroyed in the Revolution) and interrupted only by the most slender of bar tracery not only in the clerestory but also, perhaps for the first time, in the normally dark triforium level.
The Basilica gives a powerful impression of height. The builders made special use of fasciculated 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 and therefore the 28 metres height of the roof appears to be much greater. As I said before, the Basilica of Saint Denis is the first truly Gothic cathedral, making a clear break from the previous dark and heavy Romanesque architecture.
I am going to end the description of the basilica here, the next post will detail the royal tombs found in Saint Denis. According to a small plaque on the west facade, Joan of Arc visited the cathedral in 1429. The basilica is located in northern Paris, easily accessible by metro. The area is a little run down but the basilica is right by the metro stop and we had no trouble visiting. I would probably stick close to the cathedral in any case.
Saint Denis Website: http://mobile.monuments-nationaux.fr/en/monuments/recherche-libre/bdd/monum/145
St Denis Tourism: http://uk.tourisme93.com/index.php?pagendx=10123&project=basilique
Festival Saint Denis: http://www.festival-saint-denis.com/
Catholic Encyclopedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13343b.htm
Queen Arnegunde: http://www.saint-denis.culture.fr/en/2_2_aregonde.htm