Did you know? • According to legend, Saint-Denis, decapitated in Montmartre, walked all the way to where the Basilica stands today • The basilica holds over 70 tombs and effigies • The medieval stained-glass windows were destroyed during the Revolution to salvage the lead • The North Tower, no longer standing, stood 86m (282ft) high
A true treasure of gothic architecture and the burial site of the Kings of France, this former Abbey of Saint-Denis holds a special place in the artistic, political and spiritual history of France. The stunning architecture, stained-glass windows, necropolis and effigies at the basilica are just waiting to take your breath away.
Long before the basilica was built, a monastery stood in this location that was dedicated to Saint-Denis, the first Bishop of Paris who was martyred and decapitated by the Romans in the 2nd Century.
Through the worship of Saint-Denis, the monastery enjoyed close relations with the French royal family before becoming the burial place of choice for people of royal birth.
Indeed, from King Dagobert “the good” to the legendary Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, 42 Kings, 32 Queens and more than 60 princes and princesses from several dynasties – from the Merovingians to the Bourbons – have found their final resting place in the basilica.
An effigy is a funerary sculpture of religious art representing a person lying down, generally on their backs, either alive or dead and with a blissful or happy expression.
The basilica’s necropolis houses over 70 monumental tombs and effigies of illustrious persons from French history, such as François Ist, Catherine de Médicis and Bertrand Du Guesclin, making it as such the largest collection of 12th to 15th Century funerary sculptures.
The crypt contained the tomb and relics of Saint-Denis and his two companions until the 12th Century.
The popularity of the worshiping Saint-Denis, along with the overwhelming desire of the aristocracy to be buried alongside him, lead to numerous projects to enlarge the basilica between the 6th and 7th Century. This work was organised around the crypt.
Unfortunately, only little remains of the original 5th Century chapel other than a few sections of wall that were spared. However, the romanesque crypt boasts magnificent sculpted capitals and is characterised by solid stone pillars.
The imposing structure that can be admired from the outside greatly contrasts with the basilica’s bright, spacious interior. This illusion has been achieved with the magnificent stained-glass windows.
Sadly, due to the destruction that took place during the French Revolution, very little remains of the 12th Century glasswork, other than five stained-glass windows that represents the Old Testament and the life of Moses.
The “Tree of Jesse” is probably one of the most famous windows in the basilica. It depicts a simplified family tree, tracing the genealogy of Christ and symbolically placing the King as God’s representative on Earth.
The other stained-glass windows date back to the 19th Century and were installed upon instruction from the architect Viollet Le-Duc. They illustrate the legend of Saint-Denis and the history of the basilica.
The 14m-wide south transept rose portrays God shining down on the angels, the signs of the zodiac and the annual farming work. It is said to have inspired the rose for the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Restoring the façade and reconstructing the spire
In August 2015, following three years of restoration work, the basilica rediscovered the splendour of its past. The work was conducted using a technique known as micro abrasion, which in particular helped to reveal the building’s many colours.
Restoring the façade required many different trades to intervene, including stonemasons, gilders and glassworkers, in order to revive the sculptures, paintings and gold-handed clock to their original state.
A spire, built in the 13th Century, originally towered above the north tower of the basilica. It was disassembled in 1846 as a precautionary measure following several violent storms between 1842 and 1845, but to this day has never been reconstructed.
However, in the 1990s, a project to rebuild the spire was launched by a patronage committee run by Erika Orsenna, who hoped to initiate the reconstruction. These works would be financed by opening up the building site to visitors, such as was the case for the château de Guédelon and the château de l’Hermione. Right on the doorstep of Paris, the Saint-Denis basilica, along with its stained-glass windows, effigies and gothic architecture, is just waiting to be explored