Saint-Denis Basilica

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Situated in the north of Paris, the Saint-Denis Basilica has been closely associated with French history. The church became a royal burial place under the Merovingian dynasty and was one of the most important Christian sanctuary under the Carolingians. One of the first and best examples of Gothic architecture in France, the basilica of Saint-Denis served as a model to the main French Gothic cathedrals in the 13th century. With its display of funerary sculptures of the Kings and Queens of France, Saint-Denis is one of the most important royal necropolis in Europe.


The first Gothic church in Europe

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The basilica, formerly the church of a Benedictine abbey, is considered to be the birthplace of Gothic architecture for it was there that Abbot Suger introduced a new spatial order for the rebuilding of the church’s choir in the beginning of the 12th century. In Saint-Denis, Suger and his architect united the features of Norman architecture (rib vaults) to those of Burgundian style (pointed arches), hence giving birth to Gothic architecture style. Initially named Opus Francigenum (“French work”) during the Middle-Ages, the term “Gothic” appeared during the Renaissance.

The church was not rebuilt by Suger as a whole at once. The choir was completed in 1144. The abbot added the western façade, which today does not appear to be strictly Gothic.


The Western Façade

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The façade is topped by battlements which make it resemble to a castle. With its three-part division and three deep portals, the façade somehow echoes the Roman Arch of Constantine.

The façade features some elements from Gothic (pointed arches) and Romanesque (round arches) styles.

The three portals include finely carved tympanum:

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The Central portal

The tympanum represents the Last Judgment with a Christ in majesty showing his wounds to the dead rising from their tombs.

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The Left portal:

The tympanum has relief sculptures of the signs of the zodiac.

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The Right portal:

The tympanum depicts the scenes from the martyrdom of St.Denis, first bishop of Paris.

The rose-window at the upper story was the first to be placed on a West Front façade; this feature would be re-used in Notre-Dame of Paris, Chartres, Reims, Strasbourg and many other Gothic cathedrals.

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The façade is crowned by a single tower: the South Tower. The North Tower with its spire were struck by lightning in 1837 and suffered from a storm in 1840. Viollet-le-Duc had it dismantled in 1847 and although the architect had plans to rebuild it, this plan was never completed. However, in March 2013, the mayor of the town of Saint-Denis announced the future reconstruction of the tower and its spire. With work expected to start in 2016 (or later), it will soar again at 86 metre above the town as it had been since 1219.


The nave and the transept

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The nave was the first of its kind to be built in Rayonnant Gothic style in the 13th century and inspired the naves of other major Gothic cathedrals in northern France and England. It features two lower aisles and the high windows of the clerestory which bring outside light to the inside of the sanctuary.

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In Saint-Denis, the geniality of Gothic architecture can be well observed: the ribbed vaulting and flying buttresses take on the weight of the roof, hence freeing wall-space for larger window bays.

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Above each arm of the transept, two impressive 12 metre wide rose windows were placed, similar to those in Notre-Dame of Paris. Today only one is filled with stained-glass windows.


The crypt

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In the crypt are the archeological remains of a Gallo-Roman cemetery.

The basilica was named after Saint-Denis, the first bishop of Paris. Read more about the story of St. Denis.


A Royal Necropolis

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The Basilica of Saint-Denis is the necropolis of the Kings of France. All but three of the French Kings and Queens from the 10th to the 18th centuries are buried in the church.

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The tombs of the kings and queens of France are placed mainly in the nave. The monarchs are represented in carved recumbent effigies or gisants lying on raised bases. Severely damaged during the French Revolution, they were restored by architect Viollet-le-Duc in 1860.

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Some of the most prominent kings are buried in Saint-Denis basilica, such as: Clovis I (465-511), Dagobert (603-639), Charles Martel (686-741), Philip II Augustus (1180-1223), Philip IV the Fair (1268-1314), François I (1494-1547), Henri IV (1553-1610), Louis XIII (1601-1643), Louis XIV (1638-1715), Louis XV (1710-1774), and Louis XVI (1754-1793).

The basilica houses the famous memorial to King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette, sculpted in 1830 by Edme Gaulle and Pierre Petitot.

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How to get to Saint-Denis Basilica

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The basilica is easily reach from Gare Saint-Lazare and the Champs-Élysées within 20-25 minutes.

Make sure you take the metro heading for Saint-Denis Université (and not for Asnières-Gennevilliers) as the line splits at La Fourche station.


English-French Vocabulary

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(f) for féminin, (m) for masculin, (adj) for adjective and (v) for verbs

  • abbey = abbaye (f)
  • abbot = abbé (m)
  • architect = architecte (m,f)
  • architecture = architecture (f)
  • basilica = basilique (f)
  • bishop = évêque (m)
  • to build = construire (v)
  • butress = contrefort (m)
  • Carolingian = Carolingien/Carolingienne
  • cathedral = cathédrale (f)
  • christian = chrétien (adj)
  • church = église (f)
  • clerestory = claire-voie (f)
  • crypt = crypte (f)
  • Europe = Europe (f)
  • façade = façade (f)
  • flying buttress = arc boutant (m)
  • Gothic = gothique (adj)
  • king = roi (m)
  • Merovingian = Mérovingien/Mérovingienne
  • Middle-Ages = Moyen-Âge (m)
  • monarch = monarque (m)
  • nave = nef (f)
  • necropolis = nécropole (f)
  • portal = portail (m)
  • queen = reine (f)
  • Renaissance = Renaissance (f)
  • rib vault = croisée d’ogives (f)
  • Romanesque = roman/romane (adj)
  • rose-window = rosace (f)
  • sanctuary = sanctuaire (m)
  • sculpture = sculpture (f)
  • spire = flèche (f)
  • stained-glass window = vitrail (m)
  • tomb = tombe (f)
  • tower = tour (f)
  • transept = transept (m)
  • tympanum = tympan (m)

View our Flickr photoset of Saint-Denis Basilica.

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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. In 2014 he moved back to Europe from Sydney with his wife and daughter to be closer to their families and to France. He has a background teaching French and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations and a degree of Economics and Management.

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