The Cathedral Basilica of St Denis (French: Cathédrale royale de Saint-Denis, or simply Basilique Saint-Denis, previously the Abbaye de Saint-Denis) is a large abbey church in the commune of Saint-Denis, now a northern suburb of Paris. The abbey church was created a cathedral in 1966 and is the seat of the Bishop of Saint-Denis, Pascal Michel Ghislain Delannoy. The building is of unique importance historically and architecturally.
Founded in the 7th century by Dagobert I on the burial place of Saint Denis, a patron saint of France, the church became a place of pilgrimage and the burial place of the French Kings, nearly every king from the 10th to the 18th centuries being buried there, as well as many from the previous centuries. (It was not used for the coronations of kings, this role being designated to the Cathedral of Reims; however, queens were commonly crowned there.) "Saint-Denis" soon became the abbey church of a growing monastic complex. In the 12th century the Abbot Suger rebuilt portions of the abbey church using innovative structural and decorative features that were drawn from a number of other sources. In doing so, he is said to have created the first truly Gothic building. The basilica is also the prototype for the Rayonnant Gothic style, and provided an architectural model for cathedrals and abbeys of northern France, England and other countries.
Saint Denis is a patron saint of France and, according to legend, was the first bishop of Paris. A shrine was erected at his burial place. There Dagobert I, king of the Franks, who reigned from 628 to 637, founded the Abbey of Saint Denis, a Benedictine monastery. The shrine itself was created by Eligius, a goldsmith by training. It was described in the early vita of Saint Eligius:
- Above all, Eligius fabricated a mausoleum for the holy martyr Denis in the city of Paris with a wonderful marble ciborium over it marvelously decorated with gold and gems. He composed a crest [at the top of a tomb] and a magnificent frontal and surrounded the throne of the altar with golden axes in a circle. He placed golden apples there, round and jeweled. He made a pulpit and a gate of silver and a roof for the throne of the altar on silver axes. He made a covering in the place before the tomb and fabricated an outside altar at the feet of the holy martyr. So much industry did he lavish there, at the king's request, and poured out so much that scarcely a single ornament was left in Gaul and it is the greatest wonder of all to this very day.
None of this work survives.
The Basilica of St Denis is an architectural landmark as it was the first major structure of which a substantial part was designed and built in the Gothic style. Both stylistically and structurally it heralded the change from Romanesque architecture to Gothic architecture. Before the term "Gothic" came into common use, the style was known as "The French Style" (Opus Francigenum).
As it now stands, the church is a large cruciform building of "basilica" form, that is, it has a central nave with lower aisles and clerestory windows. It has an additional aisle on the northern side formed of a row of chapels. The west front has three portals, a rose window and one tower, on the southern side. The eastern end, which is built over a crypt, is apsidal, surrounded by an ambulatory and a chevette of nine radiating chapels.
Abbot Suger (circa 1081-1151), friend and confidant of the French Kings, Louis VI and Louis VII, decided in about 1137, to rebuild the great Abbey Church of St Denis, attached to an abbey which was also a royal residence. Suger began with the West front, reconstructing the original Carolingian façade with its single door. He designed the façade of St 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. There is a rose window above a west portal. Although circular windows in this position were common in Italian Romanesque churches, it is believed to be the first rose window in this position in France, and was to become a dominant feature of the Gothic facades of northern France, soon to be imitated at Chartres Cathedral and many others.
At the completion of the west front in 1140, Abbot Suger moved on to the reconstruction of the eastern end, leaving the Carolingian nave in use. He designed a choir (chancel) that would be suffused with light. To achieve his aims, Suger's 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. Erwin Panofsky argued that Suger was inspired to create a physical representation of the Heavenly Jerusalem, however the extent to which Suger had any aims higher than aesthetic pleasure has been called into doubt by more recent art historians on the basis of Suger's own writings.
The new structure was finished and dedicated on June 11, 1144, in the presence of the King. The Abbey of St Denis thus became the prototype for further building in the royal domain of northern France. From 1231 the old nave of St Denis was rebuilt, introducing the new Rayonnant Gothic style, and gaining, in its transepts, two spectacular rose windows.
Among the other important features were statue columns flanking the portals on the west facade (now destroyed but known from Montfaucon's drawings). A plan of circa 1700 by Félibien shows a large mortuary chapel in the form of a domed colonnaded "rotunda", adjoining the north transept of the basilica and containing the tomb of the Valois. The basilica retains stained glass of many periods, including exceptional modern glass, and a set of twelve misericords.
The abbey is where the kings of France and their families were buried for centuries and is therefore often referred to as the "royal necropolis of France". All but three of the monarchs of France from the 10th century until 1789 have their remains here. Some monarchs, like Clovis I (465-511), were not originally buried at this site. The remains of Clovis I were exhumed from the despoiled Abbey of St Genevieve which he founded.
The abbey church contains some fine examples of cadaver tombs. The effigies of many of the kings and queens are on their tombs, but during the French Revolution, these tombs were opened by workers under orders from revolutionary officials. The bodies were removed and dumped in two large pits nearby. Archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir saved many of the monuments from the same revolutionary officials by claiming them as artworks for his Museum of French Monuments.
The bodies of the beheaded King Louis XVI, his wife Marie Antoinette of Austria, and his sister Madame Élisabeth were not initially buried in Saint-Denis, but rather in the churchyard of the Madeleine, where they were covered with quicklime. The body of the Dauphin, who died of an illness, was buried in an unmarked grave in a Parisian churchyard near the Temple.
Napoleon Bonaparte reopened the church in 1806, but allowed the royal remains to be left in their mass graves. During Napoleon's exile in Elba, the restored Bourbons ordered a search for the corpses of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The few remains, a few bones that were presumably the king's and a clump of greyish matter containing a lady's garter, were found on January 21, 1815, brought to Saint-Denis and buried in the crypt. In 1817 the mass graves containing all the other remains were opened, but it was impossible to distinguish any one from the collection of bones. The remains were therefore placed in an ossuary in the crypt of the church, behind two marble plates with the names of the hundreds of members of the succeeding French dynasties that were interred in the church duly recorded.
King Louis XVIII, upon his death in 1824, was buried in the center of the crypt, near the graves of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The coffins of royal family members that died between 1815 and 1830 were also placed in the vaults. Under the direction of architect Viollet-le-Duc, famous for his work on Notre-Dame de Paris, church monuments that were taken to the Museum of French Monuments were returned to the church. The corpse of King Louis VII, who had been buried at the Abbey at Saint-Pont and whose tomb had not been touched by the revolutionaries, was brought to Saint-Denis and buried in the crypt. In 2004 the mummified heart of the Dauphin, the boy that would have been Louis XVII, was sealed into the wall of the crypt.
All but three of the Kings of France are buried in the basilica, as well as a few other monarchs. The remains of the earlier monarchs were removed from the destroyed Abbey of St Genevieve. The most prominent are:
- Clovis I (465 - 511)
- Childebert I (496 - 558)
- Arégonde (c.515 - c.573)
- Fredegonde (Wife of Chilperic I of Neustria) (? - 597)
- Dagobert I (603 - 639)
- Clovis II (635 - 657)
- Charles Martel (686 - 741)
- Pippin the Younger (714 - 768) and his wife Bertrada of Laon (726-783)
- Carloman I King of the Franks (c.751 - 771)
- Charles the Bald (823 - 877) (his monument was melted down) and his wife, Ermentrude of Orléans (823 - 869)
- Carloman (866 - 884)
- Robert II the Pious (972–1031) and Constance of Arles (c. 986 - 1032)
- Henry I (1008-1060)
- Louis VI (1081-1137)
- Louis VII (1120-1180) and Constance of Castile (1141-1160)
- Philip II Augustus (1180-1223)
- Charles I of Naples (1226 - 1285), king of the Two Sicilies (1266-85). An effigy covers his heart burial.
- Philip III the Bold (1245 - 1285)
- Philip IV the Fair (1268 - 1315) and Isabella of Aragon (1247 – 1271)
- Leo V of Armenia (1342 - 1393)
- Francis I (1494 - 1547)
- Henry II (1519 - 1559) and Catherine de' Medici (1519 – 1589)
- Francis II (1544 – 1560)
- Charles IX (1550-1574) (no monument)
- Henry III (1551 -1589) (heart burial monument)
- Henry IV (1553 - 1610)
- Louis XIII (1601 – 1643)
- Louis XIV (1638 – 1715)
- Louis XV (1710 – 1774),
- Louis XVI (1754 – 1793) and Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793)
- Louis XVII (1785 - 1795) (Only his heart. His body was dumped into a mass grave)
- Louis XVIII (1755 - 1824)
Other royalty and nobility
- Marie de' Medici (1575-1642), consort of Henry IV,
- Nicolas Henri, Duke of Orléans (1607-1611), son of Henry IV,
- Gaston, Duke of Orléans (1608-1660), son of Henry IV,
- Marie de Bourbon, Duchess of Montpensier (1605-1627), wife of Gaston,
- Marguerite of Lorraine (1615-1672), Duchess of Orléans and second wife of Gaston,
- Anne Marie Louise d'Orléans (1627-1693), la Grande Mademoiselle,
- Marguerite Louise d'Orléans (1645-1721), Grand Duchess of Tuscany,
- Élisabeth Marguerite d'Orléans (1646-1694), Duchess of Guise,
- Jean Gaston d'Orléans, (1650-1652), Duke of Valois,
- Henrietta Maria of France (1609-1669), queen consort of Charles I of England,
- Philippe de France, (1640-1701), brother of Louis XIV,
- Marie-Thérèse d'Autriche (1638-1683), consort of Louis XIV,
- Louis of France (1661–1711), le Grand Dauphin,
- Duchess Maria Anna of Bavaria (!660-1690), Dauphin of France, wife of Louis,
- Anne Élisabeth of France (1662), daughter of Louis XIV,
- Marie Anne of France (1664), daughter of Louis XIV,
- Marie Thérèse of France (1667–1672), daughter of Louis XIV,
- Philippe Charles of France (1668-1671), Duke of Anjou, son of Louis XIV
- Louis François of France (1672), Duke of Anjou, son of Louis XIV,
- Philippe d'Orléans (1674-1723), Regent of France,
- Louis of France (1682-1712), Duke of Burgundy,
- Charles of France (1686–1714), Duke of Berry,
- Marie Louise Élisabeth d'Orléans (1693-1714), Duchess of Berry,
- Na (not baptized) d'Alençon (1711)
- Charles d'Alençon(1713) Duke of Alençon,
- Marie Louise Élisabeth d'Alençon (1714)
- Marie Leszczyńska (1703-1768), consort of Louis XV,
- Marie Louise Élisabeth of France (1727-1759), Duchess of Parma,
- Princess Anne Henriette of France (1727-1752), daughter of Louis XV and twin of the above,
- Princess Marie Louis of France (1728-1733), daughter of Louis XV,
- Louis of France (1729–1765), Dauphin of France,
- Philippe of France (1730-1733), Duke of Anjou,
- Princess Marie Adélaïde of France (1732-1800), daughter of Louis XV,
- Princess Victoire of France (1733-1799), daughter of Louis XV,
- Princess Sophie Philippine of France (1734-1782), daughter of Louis XV,
- Princess Louise Marie of France (1737-1787), daughter of Louis XV,
- ↑ Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method.
- ↑ Vita S. Eligius, edited by Levison, on-line at Medieval Sourcebook
- ↑ William Chester Jordan, A Tale of Two Monasteries: Westminster and Saint-Denis in the thirteenth century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009) Chapters 2-7.
- ↑ H. Honour and J. Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. ISBN 0-13-193507-0
- ↑ Wim Swaan, The Gothic Cathedral
- ↑ "L'art Gothique", section: "L'architecture Gothique en Angleterre" by Ute Engel: L'Angleterre fut l'une des premieres régions à adopter, dans la deuxième moitié du XIIeme siècle, la nouvelle architecture gothique née en France. Les relations historiques entre les deux pays jouèrent un rôle prépondérant: en 1154, Henri II (1154–1189), de la dynastie Française des Plantagenêt, accéda au thrône d'Angleterre." (England was one of the first regions to adopt, during the first half of the 12th century, the new gothic architecture born in France. Historic relationships between the two countries played a determining role: in 1154, Henry II (1154–1189), of the French Plantagenet dynasty, assended to the throne of England).
- ↑ John Harvey, The Gothic World
- ↑ Images of Medieval Art and Architecture - Félibien accessed March 29, 2009
- Saint-Denis Cathedral, Alain Erlande-Brandenburg, Editions Ouest-France, Rennes
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Basilique Saint-Denis|
- Detailed list of members of the French Royal families buried in Saint Denis Basilica
- L'Internaute Magazine: Diaporama (French)
- Satellite image from Google Maps
- Saint-Denis, a town in the Middle Ages
- Photos of tombs and the Basilica (French)
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