Basilica of Saint-Denis -

Saint Denis basilica front
Above the front of the Basilica Saint-Denis

The suburb of Saint-Denis, Paris

Saint-Denis (pop. 100 000) is a working-class suburb to the north of Paris, just outside the Peripherique.

For the visitor there are two main points of interest in this rather run-down suburb: the Stade de France football stadium, and the Basilica of Saint-Denis. Both places are easily reached by using metro line 13.

Stations are Stade de France and Basilique Saint-Denis, and both metro stations have signposts to the points of interest.

The history of Saint-Denis

Saint-Denis is where all the French kings from Dagobert I (reigned 629-639, died of dysentery) onwards are buried. So why here, in this run-down suburb? Well there is a rather grisly, or miraculous beginning to it all.

Have a look at the photograph on the right. It is of the back door to the basilica. Then have a look at the close-up below left. This shows the beheading of Saint Denis. He is believed to have come from Rome, but he may have been Greek, in the 1st century, but some say the 2nd, and others the 3rd. However one thing is certain, he was beheaded for preaching Christianity in and around Paris at a time when it was outlawed.

At this time Paris was under Roman rule and law. Christianity had been outlawed as a strange and peculiar sect. The majority of the population followed the current belief that the Roman emperor was divine.

Saint Denis basilica back door
Above the back door of the basilica of Saint-Denis, below left a close up showing the beheading of Saint-Denis
Saint denis back door detail of St. Denis beheading
Above the back door to Saint-Denis showing the beheading of the saint. Below the inside of the basilica.

Denis denied the divinity of the Roman emperor. So, along with two others, he was arrested and taken to the temple of Mercury, on the hill now known as Montmartre, and beheaded.

Nothing unusual so far, you say. People were mutilated and beheaded, according to the laws and customs of the time, regularly. What made this particular beheading rather different was the attitude of the beheadee (this may be a new word, forgive me, but it does fit). Quite simply he picked up his head and walked!

First he washed it in a nearby stream, and then walked a further 6000 paces carrying his head. Then he lay down and died.

It is not recorded what the bewildered Roman officials though of all this kerfuffle. Anyway the spot where he died became a holy place for Christians. They visited it at first in secret and quietly, as the religion was still outlawed, but in time Christianity gained popularity, and soon became the common religion, so they visited openly.

Then in 451 Genvieve, a Christian, had a vision. At this time the Huns, led by Attila, had overrun large parts of Europe, and were heading for Paris with nothing in their way to stop them. People had already started to flee from the city. But in Genvieve's vision she saw that the Huns would not enter Paris, and she urged the people to stay in their city.

They stayed, and the Huns moved south to the richer pickings of the Loire valley, and their eventual defeat, but that's another story. Genvieve converted the current king, Clovis, to Christianity. And around this time a church was built over the spot where Denis was buried.

Saint Denis basilica, inside

Right the rose window inside the basilica.

Below left the tombs of (left ot right) Philip le Long, Jane d'Evereaux, Charles IV, le Bel (the good).

Saint Denis basilica, rose window
Saint Denis basilica, tombs

Eventually Denis was granted sainthood, and so was Genvieve. She became the patron saint of Paris, and her statue (made in 1920) is on Pont de la Tournelle.

The church was called Saint Denis, and was still a place of pilgrimage as the main north-south road from Paris passed right through it.

Then in the 1130s came Abbot Suger. He decided to rebuild the church as something greater and more befitting its standing as a royal burial place and point of pilgrimage. He was a man of taste and knowledge. With his architect he merged the styles of the pointed Burgindian arch with the Anglo-Norman ribbed vault. This merging of styles was copied ten years later in the building of Chartres cathedral.

It was said of Suger's architect that he was "a sublime madman who dared to launch such monument as Saint-Denis into the air". And as you stand in the basilica and look around and above is is amazing to think that it was all built by hand, using crude tools, and the measuring devices and mathematics of Euclid and Pythagoras - no computer-aided design and powered machinery in those days.

Suger was abbot for thirty years until his death in 1151. As well as abbot he served as regent to both Louis VI and VII. He was also an astute diplomat, statesman and businessman. He is sometimes criticised for hoarding up gold, jewellery and spending vast sums on stained-glass windows and church decorations. While his parishioners were largely illiterate, living in small hovels.

Most of them had never handled a book, and some may never even have seen one close-up. But when they looked about them it was the church that towered over every other thing. And on the outside the figures and carvings that are mostly nameless to us, conveyed stories to them, and had names.

Once inside the churches all was space and light and colour - so different from the grey and gutted interiors we see today. These "illiterates" could "read" the stories depicted in the stained glass windows, and the lives of the saints carved in stone. To them the church was a place of awe and splendour beyond anything else.

During the revolution the tombs were defaced or destroyed, the statues decapitated, and the bones scattered. So today there is some uncertainty of just what is held in the tombs. Especially that which is supposed to hold the remains of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. Both were guillotined on what is now Place de la Concorde and their bodies dumped in a common grave up near where the Madeleine stands today.

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