The Cathedral Basilica of Saint-Denis



by I . Spaak, France

Isabelle SPAAK, Journalist
(e-mail:isabelle.spaak@wanadoo.fr)

Considered the first monumental masterpiece of Gothic art, the Basilica of Saint-Denis was constructed north of Paris on the site of a Gallo- Roman cemetery where the holy martyr, Saint Denis, had secretly been buried in the latter half of the 3rd century. A shrine erected there in the 4th century was used as a place of pilgrimage, which developed into a monastery in the 5th century. Dagobert became the benefactor in the 7th century and founded a basilica, after which the monastery became one of the main Merovingian burial sites. Pepin the Short was anointed king in the monastery in the year 751. The basilica became the definitive royal resting place with the death of Hugues Capet in the 10th century. It continued to develop, and proceeded to become one of the most powerful Benedictine abbeys of the Middle Ages. Abbot Suger, an influential political figure and remarkable administrator, had the structure rebuilt according to new architectural techniques in the 12th century, and thus emerged the Gothic features of the abbey. The use of rosette windows and cross-ribbed arches filled the building with light. Further construction work in the 13th century served to give the Basilica its current appearance. A sacred place for the Frenchmonarchy, and the necropolis of the kings of France, the French Revolution precipitated its decline. Through the guidance of Viollet-le-Duc, the Basilica was carefully restored in the 19th century. The abbey church was granted cathedral status in 1966, and today the edifice houses an exceptional collection of recumbent effigies and tombs from the Middle Ages to the 16th century, as well as stained glass windows from the 12th to the 19th centuries.

Medicographia. 2009;31:440-448 (see French abstract on page 448)

On their marble resting place, two pairs of bare feet, toes stretched skyward, mark the tomb of Francis I. Dazzled by the majesty of the transept, the rosette window, the height of the central nave, and the immense walls of colored glass stretching above the monumental choir, a visitor entering the Cathedral of Saint-Denis by the south entrance might miss the soles of the sovereign altogether, and head for the double ambulatory.

If, however, the visitor neglects the recumbent effigy of the Victor of Marignan and his wife, both lying under their stone arch, they will definitely be deprived of a vital prelude to what awaits. Brutally nude, the bodies mark the beginning of a succession of emotive displays punctuating the royal necropolis, including the moving memorial of Louis XVII, a child of whom nothing remains but a pebble-sized heart displayed in a transparent urn. The splendor of the building, the silence of the crypt, the magnificence of the nave, and the exceptional funerary art serve as a reminder that the Cathedral Basilica of Saint-Denis is not only a Gothic masterpiece, but also the result of the evolution from simple shrine to admired abbey to powerful basilica, as well as a royal necropolis that illustrates the antinomic relationship between power and death.


Exterior of the Basilica of Saint-Denis. Copyright © Robert Holmes/CORBIS.


The nave of the Basilica of Saint-Denis with its impressive cross-ribbed vaulted arches. Copyright © Robert Holmes/CORBIS.

The vanity of existence and royal power

The tomb of Louis XII (1462-1515) and Anne of Brittany (1476- 1514) was the first of its kind. The commission for the tomb was given to Guido Massoni and Jean Juste, two Florentine artists residing in Tours. A majestic piece of architecture, the Carrara marble mausoleum stands on two levels in the north transept of the cathedral. In the lower part, emaciated bodies, marked by convulsions and spasms of death throes, are a reminder of the fatal destiny of the body. The queen’s head is thrown back as though trying to catch a last gulp of air. The king’s half-open mouth appears to evict a last death rattle. Crumpled and askew sheets call to mind sweat, a battle, and foul odors. Breasts fall, ribs protrude, and the frightfully distended veins of the neck look ready to burst. Nothing is spared in both funerary effigies, not even the roughly sewn up belly, which was opened for evisceration prior to embalming. Standing in full contrast to the lower level, the upper storey of the monument depicts Louis XII and Anne of Brittany in all their plenitude. Wearing long cloaks, heads bare of crowns, there is no ostentatious sign of power. The sovereigns are shown kneeling in front of their modest cushion-covered individual altars. With their hands entwined, they pray for resurrection.

Battle scenes on the base illustrate the hours of glory of the king’s reign and the final victory of death. Black marble allegorical representations, located in the four angles of the monument, praise the Cardinal Virtues.

More than a commemoration of the departed, the representation of both states of being—dead and alive—offers Christians a meditation on the meaning of life and accentuates the continuity of royal power in spite of the brevity of existence.


The tomb of Francis I (1494-1547), King of France, in the Basilica of Saint-Denis. Copyright © Roger-Viollet.


Recumbent statue of Francis I (1494-1547), King of France, and Queen Claude of France, in the Basilica of Saint-Denis. Copyright © Pierre Jahan/Roger-Viollet.

Presented under an imposing triumphal arch constructed in 1547 in the ancient style, the “transi” or transitory tomb of Francis I and Queen Claude of France was laid out in monumental tradition characteristic of the Renaissance. On the tomb is a relief from the same inspiration as that of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany. The sovereigns are represented in their original naked state under a marble canopy. Shown in prayer, accompanied by their three children on the upper platform, the scene exudes the power of royalty.

The collection of funerary statues and tombs in the Basilica Saint-Denis has been augmented by monuments brought from the abbeys of Sainte-Geneviève, Saint-Germain-des- Prés, and Royaumont, as well as convents of the Cordeliers, Jacobins, Celestines, and other religious orders.

The tombs of the son of Clovis I, Childebert I (558 AD), Chilperic (584 AD), and his wife Fredegund (597 AD) were originallymade for Saint-Germain-des-Prés, but having been desecrated, their remains were moved and portions of their tombs remade in the 12th century. Dating from 1150, the effigy of the Frankish king resting at the bottom of a sarcophagus is one of the nicest Parisian productions from the middle of that century. The unique stone celebrating the queen is the original, and the slab is inlaid with a mosaic of colored stones and slender threads of gilded copper. These works were commissioned by the monks in memory of the couple who chose to be buried in their abbey.

In this abbey church turned cathedral, which serves as the resting place for 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses, and 10 prominent figures of the Kingdom of France, the contrast between funeral traditions is gripping. What connection is there indeed between the pompous and lofty Renaissance architecture and the simple pit in which the remains of Saint Denis were buried? A hole dug in the same soil…

From shrine to cathedral by way of a tomb

The first structure erected on the site of the Gallo-Roman graveyard containing the tomb of Saint Denis, first bishop of Paris who was martyred circa 250 AD, was a simple shrine. A place of pilgrimage, the first abbey-church was constructed in the 5th century. During the reign of Clovis (481-511) the abbey was chosen as the sepulcher for the remains of the Frankish aristocracy. 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 basilica was firmly established as the definitive “cemetery of the kings.”

In the 12th century, Abbot Suger, adviser of Louis VI and Louis VII, considerably developed the connections between the Sandyonisien cult and the monarchy. A remarkable administrator, Abbot Suger made the abbey his chief work from 1122 until the year of his death in 1151, and the result was the premier representation of Gothic art worldwide. The use of rosette windows and impressive cross-ribbed vaulted arches gave the church a wide-open, airy feeling, and filled the church with light. The combination of internal ornamentation, surges of gold, painted decorations and gemstones, and the stained glass windows united to shower praise on the liturgy. New construction work carried out in the 13th century, under the reign of Saint Louis, gave the basilica its current appearance.


Self-painting by Eugène Viollet-Le-Duc in the Abbey of Saint-Denis, who restored the Basilica from 1846. Watercolor. La Médiathèque de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, Paris. Copyright © RMN/Daniel Arnaudet.

In addition to war and plundering, the French Revolution contributed to the Basilica Saint-Denis’ decline and eventual abandonment. Revolutionary soldiers desecrated the tombs, and the roof was destroyed in order to get to the lead. As Chateaubriand wrote in his work, The Genius of Christianity (Génie du Christianisme), “Saint-Denis is deserted. The bird uses it for passage, the grass grows on its broken altars, and one can no longer hear the raindrops which fall from the bare roof.” Napoleon decided to have the monument restored in order to “consecrate the burial of the Emperors.” Louis XVIII made the Basilica his vocation. He ordered searches and excavations in the Valois cemetery on the north side of the abbey, with the aim of recovering the royal remains that had been strewn about by the revolutionaries. Restored by Viollet-le-Duc from the year 1846, the basilica became a cathedral in 1966.

Burial of a martyr

Saint Denis, the patron saint of France, is considered the first bishop of Paris (Lutecia). He died as a martyr in the latter half of the 3rd century, circa 258-280. Denis (or Dionysus), was a disciple of Saint Paul. After the apostle’s death, Pope Clement I sent him on a mission to Gaul (circa 250) accompanied by his two companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius. There they perished as victims of an edict ordered by the Roman Emperor Decius to suppress and persecute Christians. Imprisoned and tortured, the saints were finally decapitated on the highest hill in Paris, the Butte of Montmartre. According to legend, Denis miraculously picked up his head, which had been cut off with an axe, and started walking, continuing to sing hymns and preach sermons. He carried his head for several kilometers, to near the village of Cattuliacus (Catolacus).

Roman soldiers were given the mission of throwing the bodies of the saints into the Seine; however, a pious woman by the name of Catulla, who was also a follower of Denis, distracted the soldiers from their task. She managed to inebriate them, then recovered the bodies of the saints and buried them in a nearby field, where the quickly growing wheat kept them hidden.

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. Thereafter in the 5th century, a church of approximately 60 square meters was constructed to replace the shrine, and a monastery was later established. The abbey church was continuously enlarged and improved upon until the 13th century. Similarly, over the centuries, both the Dionysian cult and the abbey acquired considerable importance.

Royal sepulcher

The abbey was chosen during the reign of Clovis (481-511) to serve as the sepulcher for 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. For her last sleep, she was dressed in silks from Constantinople and adorned with earrings, garters, and gold brooches inlaid with garnet. Treasures in accordance with her rank, they testified to the importance granted to a sanctuary in the Early Middle Ages.


Ornate jewelry used to adorn Queen Aregund upon her burial in the Church of Saint-Denis in around 580. Copyright © RMN/Jean-Gilles Berizzi.


Dagobert I, of the Merovingian dynasty. Copyright © Michael Nicholson/CORBIS.

Fleeing his father Clothar, Dagobert had an apparition while in Catulliacum. According to legend, the martyrs appeared and promised to help him if he committed to building a church that Christ would personally dedicate the evening prior to the official consecration. Dagobert accepted and through his impetus, the existing church was enlarged and a basilica was built. He is sometimes considered—wrongly—to be the founder of the monastery. Dagobert was the first king to be interred in the basilica in 639 and the monastery rapidly became one of the main and true burial places for the Merovingian dynasty. The son of Dagobert, Clovis II (657 AD), was also buried there. From that time on, the kings conferred upon Saint Denis the title of “special patron,” a title that was confirmed by the Carolingians and then the Capetians.

Throughout the course of history, sovereigns were always in search of legitimacy, which partly explains the desire to be laid to rest near the relics of Saint Denis, Saint Rusticus, and Saint Eleutherius. The strength and might of the martyrs was thought to help them acquire power and protection during their life—especially in battle—and according to belief, would enable their direct ascent to Heaven after death. Be that as it may, the abbey suffered a few “rejections” and “abandonments,” with some royals choosing internment elsewhere; for example, in the Basilica of Saint-Germain- des-Prés. Known at that time as the Church of Saint- Vincent with an adjoining abbey, Sainte-Croix, the original structure was founded by Childebert I, son of Clovis I, as a shrine to house Merovingian relics. Several Merovingian kings and their families were interred there, such as Childebert I (558 AD) and his wife and family, as well as Chilperic (584 AD) and his wife Fredegund (597 AD).

On the other hand, some sovereigns, such as 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, or Pippin III (768 AD), the first sovereign of the Carolingian dynasty, was anointed king in a lavish ceremony at the monastery in 751. A few years later, in 754, he expressed his wish to be interred there. He also vowed to rebuild the ancient basilica. Meeting his end during a military campaign in 768, Pepin’s corpse was returned to Saint Denis. According to his wishes and as a sign of humility, he was buried outside the entrance of the west porch, face down, apparently for the sins of his father.

The work undertaken by Pepin’s two sons, Charlemagne and Carloman I, was started only after his death, circa 768- 769. On February 24, 775, Abbot Fulrad dedicated the 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. The structure was grandly lit by 1250 lamps during big celebrations. In approximately 800, Abbot Fulrad endowed the basilica with a new addition in front of the west facade above the tomb of Pepin the Short. As in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a crypt under the apse enabled pilgrims to venerate the relics.


Stone tomb of Charles Martel in the Basilica of Saint-Denis, who requested that he be laid to rest there. Copyright © Lauros/Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library.


Suger being made Abbot of Saint-Denis in 1122. He remained Abbot until his death in 1151. Oil on wood. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes. Copyright © RMN/Gérard Blot.


The crypt of the Basilica of Saint-Denis. Copyright © Peter Willi/Bridgeman Art Library.

However, it was not until 200 years later in 996, upon the death of Hugues Capet, the first Capetian monarch, that Saint Denis would become the definitive “cemetery of the kings,” with few exceptions.

A visionary abbot

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 confirmed the crucial role of the basilica. Abbot of Saint-Denis from 1122 until his death in 1151, he also assured the regency of the kingdom when Louis VII departed for the second crusade in 1147.

Inscribed on the scarlet banner, interspersed with the golden flames of the famous oriflamme of Saint-Denis, is « Montjoie! Saint Denis! » which became the battle cry of the knights and the slogan of the Kingdom of France, which was under the protection of the guardian saint. The standard is a pretty image of the personal union between the abbey, the patron saint, and the king. Systematically raised in times of war by the sovereigns, who would themselves collect it from the hands of the abbot from the altar of the holy martyrs, the standard is one of the main objects from the medieval era that evoked the first notions or feelings of “nation.”

Suger showed himself to be an unparalleled administrator of the abbey. He started by having the basilica restored, repairing cracks and taking on painters from various regions to cover the walls with gold and precious colors. He accumulated enough funds to enhance the church’s treasure and undertook the reconstruction of the facade and apse, while at the same time conserving the ancient Carolingian nave, which he maintained was the original from the first abbey church that, according to legend, Dagobert I constructed and Christ consecrated.

The worksite for the facade was set up again in 1130. Using the techniques and completely new aesthetics of Gothic art, he developed a complex architectural plan. The facade was conceived as a tribute to the Trinity and was comprised of two towers linked by a crenellated parapet symbolizing Heavenly Jerusalem. The decor of the three portals should be considered the birth of Gothic sculpture. 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 martyr.

In 1140, although the towers were not yet completed, Suger began reconstruction work of the apse of the abbey church, which was completed in a record 4 years. The attention given to the fusion of space, and the double ambulatory divided by narrow columns shaped into one sole block in order to let light pass through, established the choir as one of the most beautiful achievements of the era. The external ambulatory opened onto nine adjoining chapels connected by wide passageways illuminated by broad glass ceilings. As though floating in a glass cage, the apse reflects Suger’s spirituality, which was based on contemplation and the transcendence of light. The floor was covered with mosaics, which have since disappeared.


Brilliantly colored stained glass windows in the Basilica of Saint-Denis depicting scenes from the Bible. Copyright © Robert Holmes/CORBIS.

Gothic vocabulary

Thanks to Abbot Suger, Saint-Denis became the true sanctuary of the monarchy. The abbey church rivaled Reims, home of the sacred cathedral. Unfortunately, however, Suger would not be there to see the completion of his masterpiece. Reconstruction of the nave was interrupted by preparations for the crusade of Bernard de Clairvaux, and the abbot died on January 13, 1151. Meanwhile, the concepts and knowledge of his architecture gave birth to Gothic art. A new vocabulary was also born—window size, open walls, cross-ribbed vaults, and broken arches—which becamemore enriched with each successive generation.


The coronation of Marie de Medici in the Church of Saint-Denis in 1610. Oil on canvas by Peter Paul Rubens. The Louvre, Paris. Copyright © RMN/Christian Jean/Hervé Lewandowski.

Suger’s successors seem to have dedicated the second half of the 12th century to restoring the financial base of the abbey. It was not until 1230, under Abbot Eudes de Clement, that they thought of completing the basilica, in agreement with the young Louis IX and his mother, Blanche de Castille, Regent of the Kingdom. The building needed to compete with the most prestigious Gothic cathedrals in the north of France. The daring architecture of Suger’s plan was reinforced, the triforium and the high windows were reshaped, and the Carolingian church was razed. The transept was divided into five spans to make room for the tombs of the kings of France and the huge rosette windows of the transept, which served as models for the palatial chapel of Saint Germain-en-Laye and Notre Dame de Paris. These features firmly inaugurated the radiant Gothic style, a new architectural phase adopted throughout Europe. The nave was finally completed in 1281.

In May 1389, grand ceremonies were organized at Saint-Denis to rally the knighthood of King Charles VI, and the monks celebrated a mass in honor of Bertrand Du Guesclin, who was buried in the basilica in 1380. Then, abruptly, with the standard of Saint-Denis proving ineffectual against the English armies, relations between the abbey and the kingdom became strained. The church was pillaged again and again in the 15th and 16th centuries. Fromthe time ofMarie deMedici’s coronation in the church in 1610, ceremonies brought about modifications and depredations.

Revolutionary madness

On Friday September 14, 1792, the monks of Saint-Denis celebrated their last service in the abbey church. The following year, in the name of the New Republic, a group of Revolutionaries invaded. From October 12-25, 1793, the royal remains were exhumed and thrown into a mass grave in the Valois cemetery on the north side of the building. “Most of the bodies were decaying,” recorded Dom German Poirier, erudite Benedictine who was present during the profaning of the tombs. “A foul-smelling, thick, black vapour was released, which they desperately tried to dispel with vinegar and powder that they had taken the precaution of burning.” In 1794, the Arms and Powders Commission had the roof removed in order to get at the strips of lead. The building was in ruins. A street was very nearly constructed straight through the middle. The vaulted arches were exposed to bad weather, the church served as a storehouse for wheat and flour, there was even talk of destroying the central nave in order to establish a market hall in its place. After the turbulence and torment, the church was finally reinstated as a place of worship.


Statues of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI depicting them kneeling in prayer in the Basilica of Saint-Denis. Copyright © Robert Holmes/CORBIS.

At the height of his glory, Napoleon decided to have the tomb of his dynasty established in the Basilica of Saint-Denis in order to join the historical continuity of royal families there. Work on a colossal scale was undertaken. A new buildingmaster was named in 1813 but his ignorance of medieval architecture lead to disaster. Although the north spire was rebuilt after falling to the ground as a result of a thunderbolt strike on June 9, 1837, it collapsed under its own weight in 1845. The work was then entrusted to Viollet-le-Duc who continued to masterfully direct the work until 1879. After various excavations revealed pre-existing structures and the existence of Merovingian tombs, the church was elevated to a cathedral in 1966. The Cathedral Basilica of Saint-Denis is divided into two main parts: the nave and lower section are used for Catholic ceremonies, and the transept, choir, ambulatory, and crypt make up the museum. A unique collection in Europe, the museum houses seventy recumbent statues and tombs through which the evolution of funerary art across the centuries can be seen and admired. _