St. Denis

By Grant Allen


About six miles north of the original Paris stands the great Basilica of St. Denis--the only church in Paris, and I think in France, called by that ancient name, which carries us back at once to the days of the Roman Empire, and in itself bears evidence to the antiquity of the spot as a place of worship. Around it, a squalid modern industrial town has slowly grown up; but the nucleus of the whole place, as the name itself shows, is the body and shrine of the martyred bishop, St. Denis. Among the numerous variants of his legend, the most accepted is that in which the apostle of Paris carries his head to this spot from Montmartre. Others say he was beheaded in Paris and walked to Montmartre, his body being afterward translated to the Abbey; while there are some who see in this legend a survival of the Dionysiac festival and sacrifice of the vine-growers round Paris--Denis--Dionysius--Dionysus.

However that may be, a chapel was erected in 275 above the grave of St. Denis, on the spot now occupied by the great Basilica; and later, Ste. Genevieve was instrumental in restoring it. Dagobert I., one of the few Frankish kings who lived much in Paris, built a "basilica" in place of the chapel (630), and instituted by its side a Benedictine Abbey. The church and monastery which possest the actual body of the first bishop and great martyr of Paris formed naturally the holiest site in the neighborhood of the city; and even before Paris became the capital of a kingdom, the abbots were persons of great importance in the Frankish state.

The desire to repose close to the grave of a saint was habitual in early times, and even (with the obvious alteration of words) ante-dated Christianity--every wealthy Egyptian desiring in the same way to "sleep with Osiris." Dagobert himself was buried in the church he founded, beside the holy martyr; and in later times this very sacred spot became for the same reason the recognized burial place of the French kings. Dagobert's fane was actually consecrated by the Redeemer Himself, who descended for the purpose by night, with a great multitude of saints and angels.

The existing Basilica, tho of far later date, is the oldest church of any importance in the neighborhood of Paris. It was begun by Suger, abbot of the monastery, and sagacious minister of Louis VI. and VII., in 1121. As yet, Paris itself had no great church, Notre-Dame having been commenced some 50 years later. The earliest part of Suger's building is in the Romanesque style; it still retains the round Roman arch and many other Roman constructive features. During the course of the 50 years occupied in building the Basilica, however, the Gothic style was developed; the existing church therefore exhibits both Romanesque and Gothic work, with transitional features between the two, which add to its interest. Architecturally, then, bear in mind, it is in part Romanesque, passing into Gothic. The interior is mostly pure Early Gothic.

The neighborhood to Paris, the supremacy of the great saint, and the fact that St. Denis was especially the Royal Abbey, all combined to give it great importance. Under Suger's influence, Louis VI. adopted the oriflamme or standard of St. Denis as the royal banner of France. The Merovingian and Carlovingian kings, to be sure--Germans rather than French--had naturally been buried elsewhere, as at Aix-la-Chapelle, Rheims, and Soissons (tho even of them a few were interred beside the great bishop martyr). But as soon as the Parisian dynasty of the Capets came to the throne, they were almost without exception buried at St. Denis. Hence the abbey came to be regarded at last mainly as the mausoleum of French royalty, and is still too often so regarded by tourists.

But tho the exquisite Renaissance tombs of the House of Valois would well deserve a visit on their own account, they are, at St. Denis, but accessories to the great Basilica. Besides the actual tombs, too, many monuments were erected here, in the 13th century (by St. Louis) and afterward, to earlier kings buried elsewhere, some relic of whom, however, the abbey possest and thus honored. Hence several of the existing tombs are of far later date than the kings they commemorate; those of the Valois almost alone are truly contemporary.

At the Revolution, the Basilica suffered irreparable losses. The very sacred reliquary containing the severed head of St. Denis was destroyed, and the remains of the martyr and his companions desecrated. The royal bones and bodies were also disinterred and flung into trenches indiscriminately. The tombs of the kings were condemned to destruction, and many (chiefly in metal) were destroyed or melted down, but not a few were saved with difficulty by the exertions of antiquaries, and were placed in the Museum of Monuments at Paris (now the Ecole des Beaux-Arts), of which Alexandre Lenoir was curator. Here, they were greatly hacked about and mutilated, in order to fit them to their new situations.

At the Restoration, however, they were sent back to St. Denis, together with many other monuments which had no real place there; but, being housed in the crypt, they were further clipt to suit their fresh surroundings. Finally, when the Basilica was restored under Viollet-le-Duc, the tombs were replaced as nearly as possible in their old positions; but several intruders from elsewhere are still interspersed among them. Louis XVIII. brought back the mingled bones of his ancestors from the common trench and interred them in the crypt. As regards the tombs, again, bear in mind these facts. All the oldest have perished; there are none here that go back much further than the age of St. Louis, tho they often represent personages of earlier periods or dynasties. The best are those of the Renaissance period. These are greatly influenced by the magnificent tomb of Giangaleazzo Visconti at the Certosa di Pavia, near Milan. Especially is this the case with the noble monument of Louis XII., which closely imitates the Italian work. Now, you must remember that Charles VIII. and Louis XII. fought much in Italy, and were masters of Milan; hence this tomb was familiar to them; and their Italian experiences had much to do with the French Renaissance. The Cardinal d'Amboise, Louis's minister, built the Chateau de Gaillon, and much of the artistic impulse of the time was due to these two. Henceforth recollect that tho Francois I. is the prince of the Renaissance, Louis XII. and his minister were no mean forerunners….

The interior is most beautiful. The first portion of the church which we enter is a vestibule or Galilee under the side towers and end of the Nave. Compare Durham. It is of the age of Abbot Suger, but already exhibits pointed arches in the upper part. The architecture is solid and massive, but somewhat gloomy.

Descend a few steps into the Nave, which is surrounded by single aisles, whose vaulting should be noticed. The architecture of this part, now pure Early Gothic, is extremely lovely. The triforium is delicate and graceful. The windows in the clerestory above it, representing kings and queens, are almost all modern. Notice the great height of the Nave, and the unusual extent to which the triforium and clerestory project above the noble vaulting of the aisles. Note that the triforium itself opens directly to the air, and is supplied with stained-glass windows, seen through its arches. Sit awhile in this light and lofty Nave, in order to take in the beautiful view up the church toward the choir and chevet. Then walk up to the Barrier near the Transepts, where sit again, in order to observe the Choir and Transepts with the staircase which leads to the raised Ambulatory. Observe that the transepts are simple. The ugly stained glass in the windows of their clerestory contains illustrations of the reign of Louis Philippe, with extremely unpicturesque costumes of the period. The architecture of the Nave and Choir, with its light and airy arches and pillars, is of the later 13th century.

The reason for this is that Suger's building was thoroughly restored from 1230 onward, in the pure pointed style of that best period. The upper part of the Choir, and the whole of the Nave and Transepts was then rebuilt-- which accounts for the gracefulness and airiness of its architecture when contrasted with the dark and heavy vestibule of the age of Suger.

Note from this point the arrangement of the Choir, which, to those who do not know Italy, will be quite unfamiliar. As at San Zeno in Verona, San Miniato in Florence, and many other Romanesque churches, the Choir is raised by some steps above the Nave and Transepts; while the Crypt is slightly deprest beneath them. In the Crypt, in such cases, are the actual bodies of the saints buried there; while the Altar stands directly over their tombs in the Choir above it.

[19] From "Paris."