Cathedral Basilica of St. Denis

I saw six cathedrals when I was in Paris and the surrounding environs. First up is the former abbey church and now Cathedral Basilica of St. Denis. It was once out in the country north of Paris but is now deep in the larger metropolitan region and has a thriving immigrant community. There was heavy restoration going on outside and inside, but I was able to still see much of the historic building, which was the burial place for the vast majority of French kings and queens, though they were all disinterred and desecrated during the Revolution.

The Abbey of St. Denis features as a critical moment in architectural history as it is the first Gothic church which uses all elements of that style. As monasteries and abbeys were the centers of education and learning, it is little surprise that its leader, Abbot Suger was the mastermind and architect behind this new style which was only derogatorily named Gothic much later.

Elements of the Gothic include the huge pointed arch windows such as we see here and cross or groin vaults. I do not believe the church was completed in Abbot Suger’s lifetime, which was normal. Seen below is the choir, which was an extended version of the apse in Gothic churches and cathedrals.

But the major elements are there in the elevation of the interior below: the colonnade at the bottom, the triforium, and the clerestory.

The stained glass of the aisles is relatively simple. I suspect much of it might have been damaged during the Revolution, as this church and others were turned into storehouses.

But the stonework, the original parts dating back to the Twelfth Century, is still very beautiful. I think much of its has already been cleaned.

The nave itself shows how in the Early Gothic the vaulting was still relatively simple and playing it safe in the width and height.

But there are still some very large and ambitious rose windows.

And as usual, the four piers over the crossing are much larger as they cannot have the same amount of flying buttressing support on the outside.

I cannot express how influential this church is to the history of St. Louis architecture. Oh yeah, and then there are all the tombs of the French kings and queens!

Let’s go downstairs to the crypt, where we go back in time to the Romanesque period.

This is the part of the tour where it starts to get interesting (and where my photos go way down in quality-sorry).

As was so common, and perhaps 90% of the time or more, the Gothic edifice replaced a Romanesque church, and the original crypt in that latter style remains. Interestingly, like many St. Louis buildings, the capitals on the columns have been left unsculpted.

Filigree is a common motif, perhaps derived from the classical Corinthian order, is a common motif, as can be seen below.

Here is another monument to some king.

Oh God, and then there’s this scene like something out of a horror movie. When all the kings and queens were disinterred and their bodies desecrated during the French Revolution, the caskets were dumped here and there. After the Bourbon Restoration, when the kings returned after the defeat of Napoleon, the bodies were put back as best as they could.

I think this is either Louis XIV or XV.

Below is the family of XVI; there was a huge effort to erase the French Revolution during the Bourbon Restoration and an attempt to memorialize the deaths of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette, as you can see below.

Louis XVII, the young son of Louis XVI, was physically abused by the agents of the Revolution, and eventually died of child abuse. His body was never found.

Several years ago, the heart that had been saved by a Royalist was confirmed by genetic testing to actually be the boy’s heart, so it has been interred next to his family.

Up above, his parents are again memorialized as a good king and queen in these two sculptures. There is still a huge amount of tension between the left and right in France over the Revolution, over two hundred years later.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Joshua Vise says:

    If you look at the picture of the colonnade at the bottom, the triforium, and the clerestory, you can see a patch parallel to the stained glass where the stone has faded differently and seems to have holes or drill marks. Any idea what caused that? Was something hanging there before?

    1. cnaffziger says:

      Good question: It could have been where scaffolding was affixed, or it could have been where tapestries were hung, which was very common originally.

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