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Basilique St-Denis, near Paris


Zodiac and Monthly Activity reliefs on the west doors of St-Denis

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St-Denis (Dionysious in  Latin), the patron saint of France, is thought to have been one of a group of seven or so Roman bishops sent by Pope Fabian to convert Gaul to Christianity.  He became Bishop of Paris, was martyred there in c258 by execution and, legend has it, walked, carrying his head in the fashion of San Miniato of Florence,  from the execution site in  Paris to what is now the site of the Abbey of St-Denis 10km north of town.  This led to a grizzly iconographic tradition in the sculptures of cathedral portals, which portray the standing saint in full bishop's kit holding his severed head in front of him and with a few bits of artery and veins jagging out of his neck stump.


A church was built on the spot where Denis finally laid down his head, and increasing numbers of pilgrims and then an abbey followed in the 600s.  A bit later, the abbey became the burial place for royalty where, eventually, 12 centuries of kings from Dagobert I (d. 639) to Louis XVIII (d. 1824), were laid to rest.


Everyone at the Abbey of St-Denis just got on with being monks, until the appointment of Abbot Suger (1081 - 1151 (70)) in 1122.  Suger, a small energetic man like his larger than life euro-contemporary St-Bernard, knocked down and rebuilt the west end facade and narthex of the abbey church between 1137 and 1140, then did the same to the east end between 1140 and 1143.  In doing so he invented (if you ignore Durham) what much later became known as Gothic, and he filled the taller lighter space with stained glass windows and beautiful sculptures, artefacts and furnishings.  He was a natural spender with very good taste and his monks reaped the benefits of this in the space they lived in.  It is interesting to draw the contrast with the aforementioned Bernard, for whom anything other than plain unadorned spaces was an unwelcome distraction from linking with God, yet both men created memorably beautiful spaces and architectural styles.


During the latter part of his life, Suger got more caught up in the affairs of state, and at one stage was appointed Regent of France whilst Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine were off at the Second Crusade (1147 - 1149).  Maybe this took his drive away from the need to complete the gothic conversion of his abbey, because it was not until the mid 1200s that the central part of the old Romanesque church was pulled down and replaced with a Gothic nave, transepts and choir. 



Sorry - this page is a mess at the moment - it will be cleaned up before too long !





Despite its role as a royal pantheon the abbey's wealth declined and things fell into disrepair.


The historian Alain Erlande-Brandenburg writes in the Abbey guide "Destruction in the abbey church preceded the Revolution. In 1771, the column-statues were torn from the piers of the western facade. In 1781, Prior Dom Malaret requested authorization, which was refused, to destroy the royal tombs. This movement continued with the Revolution. In 1793 the Treasure was melted down. In October the royal tombs were profaned. In February 1794, the lead roofing of the abbey church was taken away. Alexandre Lenoir began to collect a certain number of tombs for his Museum of French Monuments, in the former Petits Augustins convent (now the Beaux-Arts) in rue Bonaparte in Paris. The abbey church was emptied, and became a parish church before being abandoned, but escaped destruction through the efforts of the "Temporary Commission for Arts". It was transformed into a store for wheat and flour. Then, in 1794, the idea was brought up of changing it into a covered market. Chateaubriand was one of the first to raise a cry of alarm in his Genius of Christianity, in 1802: 'Saint-Denis is deserted, the birds fly through, the grass grows under its broken altars; and instead of the canticles of death resounding under its domes, one can only hear the drops of rain falling from its open roof, a stone detaching from its ruined walls or the sound of the clock resounding in the empty tombs and devastated vaults.' "



  The revolutionary times of the late 1700s did not do much for the royal remains either, though Napoleon's self interest quickly latched on to the benefits of a good  sense of respect for (dead) kings, and he stopped the final destruction of sarcophagi - though by that time the bones had had it.


However, things had reached an advanced state of decay, and though various attempts were made to handle this (including the dismantling of the north west tower in 1847), it took the arrival of Viollet-le-Duc, restorative hero inter alia of Vézelay, Autun and Notre Dame de Paris, to set things straight between 1858 and 1879.





Today St-Denis is a featureless post WW II industrial suburb, more famous for its football stadium than basilica, but at least that makes it not too hard to find driving wise.  If you pick the right hole in the ground there is a huge brightly painted and well lit modern underground car park under the drab town centre, and only ten minutes' walk from a vast also featureless paved square in front of the one towered basilica.  If this all sounds uninspiring, it is!


The abbey church is divided into two bits.  The west area from the narthex through the nave and choir to the altar rails is church, and freely accessible from the main west door.  The transept, apse, crypt etc areas which also contain the royal gisants and sarcophagi are government, and accessible for a price from the south transept door.









The north transept Tree of Jesse rose window dates from the 1840s, as does its south rose Zodiac and Labours of the Month sister.  In 2007 the latter could not be seen because of restoration work, but here is the photo in the guidebook .......

























Monthly activity mosaics - sole survivor






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