St. Denis Basilica - Table of Contents  .......................  Architecture Around the World

History & Significance
St. Denis Basilica,  Paris, France

The primary importance of this building, one of the last great abbey churches to be built, is that it became the monastic inspiration for city cathedrals and is known as the cradle of Gothic art.

Saint Denis (also called Dionysius, Dennis, or Denys) is a Christian martyr and saint. In the third century, he was Bishop of Paris. He was martyred in connection with the Decian persecution of Christians, shortly after A.D. 250. After his head was chopped off, Denis is said to have picked it up and walked ten kilometres (six miles), preaching a sermon the entire way. The site where he stopped preaching and actually died was marked by a small shrine.

Veneration of Saint Denis began soon after his death. The bodies of Saints Denis, Eleutherius, and Rusticus were buried on the spot of their martyrdom, where the construction of the saint's eponymous basilica was begun by Saint Geneviève.

Abbot Suger removed the relics of Denis, and those associated with Rustique and Eleuthére, from the crypt to reside under the high altar of the Saint-Denis he rebuilt, 1140-44.

Denis' headless walk has led to his being depicted in art decapitated and dressed as a Bishop, holding his own mitred head in his hands.

- Wikipedia: Denis (March 2012)
Sainte Geneviève, around 475, had a small chapel erected on Denis' tomb, by then a popular destination for pilgrims

It was this chapel that Dagobert I had rebuilt and turned into a royal monastery. Dagobert granted many privileges to the monastery: independence from the bishop of Paris, the right to hold a market, and, most importantly, he was buried in Saint-Denis; a tradition which was followed by almost all his successors.

In 1140, Abbot Suger, counselor to the King, granted further privileges to the citizens of Saint-Denis. He also started the works of enlargement of the basilica that still exists today, often cited as the first example of Gothic Architecture. The new church was consecrated in 1144.

During its history, Saint-Denis has been closely associated with the French royal house; starting from Dagobert I, almost every French king was buried in the Basilica. The last king to be interred in Saint-Denis was Louis XVIII.

- Wikipedia: Saint-Denis (March 2012)
Saint-Denis was originally the site of a pagan cemetery. In time it became a Christian cemetery. Neither tended to be used by Parisians. After Saint-Denis was martyred [c. A.D. 250], Catulla, a Christian woman, buried Saint Denis and marked his tomb. Ste. Genevieve then built the oratory c. 475... an oratory 20.8 m long and 8 m wide at Saint Denis' burial site. The oratory roof resembled that of a Roman basilica.

Abbot Fulrad built the new church [Romanesque style] donated by Charlemagne and Carloman, 768-775.

Abbot Hilduin 814-840 introduced Benedictine rule at Saint-Denis ... and wrote the Life of Saint Denis around 835 ... Hilduin associated Saint Denis with Dionysius the Areopagite and merged them with Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite. In order to create more ad sanctus burial space and more space for veneration of the relics Hilduin added a crypt on the eastern side of the church.

Dagobert renovated and adorned the church with precious objects. He also had martyrs bodies transferred to little silver coffins. These coffins remained in crypt until the 12th c. Some painted stucco is all that remains of his church.

For Abbot Suger and those witnessing the enhancement/replacement of the older church the older church was bright with mosaics and gold while the newer church [Gothic style] was bright with stained glass.

- Saint-Denis (March 2012)

Suger (1122-1151)

Suger (pronounced soo ZHER) entered the Monastery at the age of 9 or 10 years as an oblate devoted to Saint-Denis rather than a novice devoted to the monastic life. Suger's humble origins did not prevent him befriending the future King of France.

 Suger was elected abbot in 1122 and began to bring order back to the community's finances.

Suger was adviser of Louis VI and Louis VII. In 1147, Louis VII left on crusade and appointed a council of regency, of which Suger was the leading member. During his administration (1147-49) Suger succeeded in maintaining peace at home and in raising funds to meet the king's expenses.

Suger's biography of Louis VI, whom he had known as a classmate, remains an important historical source; he also wrote fragments of a life of Louis VII, an account of his renovation of Saint-Denis (tr. 1946), and a work on his administration of the abbey. Within fifteen years of being appointed abbot, Suger restarted the construction of the church which had become too small and badly dilapidated. A new system of vaulting (an arched structure of stone, brick, or reinforced concrete, forming a supporting structure of a ceiling or roof) was systematically used on a large scale in the narthex (an entrance hall leading to the nave of a church) of the church. One century later, this permitted the Gothic style to flourish.

Romanesque Crypt VS. Gothic Chancel: The new chancel built by Suger surmounts a vast crypt (a vaulted space underneath a building) in the Romanesque style. The crypt is what is left of the apse of the Carolingian church dedicated in 775. It is a crypt-cum-martyrium, a reminder that the relics of St. Denis and his companions were kept there until the 12th century.

A comparison of the structures of the crypt and space above it reveals the major differences between Romanesque and Gothic building.

The thick walls of the crypt create a series of separate volumes (a careful Romanesque "partitioning" into units), whereas the absence of walls in the chancel above produces a unified space.

The crypt is essentially a wall construction, and it is covered with groin vaults (two barrel vaults intersecting as a right angle); the chancel, on the other hand, is skeleton construction, and its vaults are Gothic rib vaults. A "rib vault" is identified easily by the presence of crossed, or diagonal, arches under the groins of a vault.

This chancel, composed of two straight bays in the central nave axis and seven radiating chapels on the East side, would later be taken as a model in most of the 12th and 13th century churches and cathedrals.

It is composed of a double ambulatory (a passageway around the apse of a church) leading to several shallow chapels. The chancel ends with the outside wall. This wall appears to undulate and is pierced by huge bays. The bays are closed off by the "first crown of light" -- stained-glass windows, which are some of the oldest in France.

Narthex: Suger restarted the construction of the church which had become too small and badly dilapidated He left the nave untouched. In 1136 he began to rebuild the narthex (An entrance hall leading to the nave of a church) . It was consecrated in June of 1140. The size and proportions of the narthex suggest suggest that it was still inspired by Romanesque Norman architecture.

West entry / Façade: On the other hand, the three portals, symbols of the Trinity, were decorated with untraditional sculptures. The tympanum of the central portal represents the "Last Judgment with Suger at the feet of Jesus Christ in glory." In the lintel the "Resurrection" was sculptured. On the curves of the arch are representations of "Paradise" and "Hell." The "Last Judgment" of Saint-Denis is closer to the Gothic style, based on Saint Matthew, than to the Romanesque dreams inspired by Saint John's revelation The rose window, which provides light for the upper chapel, constitutes one of the biggest innovations in the history of architecture. It was the first dated example of a favorite design of the Gothic style. It is situated on the West Front of the church.

Ambulatory: An "ambulatory" is the covered walkway outside the chancel and around the apse of a church. On the side of the ambulatory facing the outer wall, there are chapels that extend the outer wall. Ambulatories are rare in America, but common in Europe.

Suger's conception of the ambulatory with its "radiating" chapels was made to go with filtered light through stained-glass windows, which he personally looked after with great care. Fourteen windows, two per radiating chapel, were ornamented with stained-glass windows following his directives. Eight of them bore decorative stained-glass windows showing winged griffins

Gothic sculpture: Gothic sculpture makes its first appearance with the same dramatic suddenness as Gothic architecture and, it is likely, in the very same place -- the abbey church of St.-Denis. Almost nothing of the sculpture of the west façade of St.-Denis survived the French Revolution, but it was there that sculpture emerged completely from the interior of the church to dominate the western entrances, which were regarded as the "gateways" to heavenly Jerusalem" and the "Royal Portal," so named because of the statues of kings and queens on the embrasures flanking the doorways.

Pierre deMontreuil

Suger died in 1151.

Work was discontinued at Suger's death, and did not resume until 1231 and was completed some fifty years later. During part of that time, it was carried out under the direction of the architect Pierre deMontreuil. Although parts of Suger's building were kept, the new construction benefited from the technical advances of Gothic architecture at its peak. Nicknamed "Lucerna" (in Latin, "lantern") for the brilliance of its light, the abbey church is a key architectural project of the 13th century.

The use of flying buttresses allowed the vaults to soar to greater heights.

In the nave, the walls rise through three levels, each illustrating novel designs:

The transept crossing was given an exceptional width to permit installation of the royal tombs. The two transept arms were pierced by two huge rose windows.

North Transept: An ancient portal, built around 1170 opens the north transept. The tympanum depicts the martyrdom of St.-Denis, while the jambs represent the Kings of the Old Testament. On the north portal tympanum, the Martyrdom of Saint-Denis can be admired.

South Transept: The portal of the south transept dates from the middle of the 13th century and is consecrated to the Last Judgment The nave rises to three levels, like the transept, large arcades, luminous triforium and high windows occupying all the space between the supports. This gives the impression of a vast, entirely glazed, volume. The huge nave is supported on the exterior by double flying-buttress. The tympanum of the south portal represents Saint-Denis in Holy Communion. The column statues were not portraits of Kings and Queens of France, but symbols underlining the Royal character of the abbey. The three portals of Saint-Denis inaugurated a theme which would be used in later cathedrals.

French Revolution and the Restoration

The French Revolution was fatal to the Monastery, as it was situated near Paris and intimately linked to the Monarchy. In 1793 and 1794, the treasury was melted, the lead roof removed, the stained-glass windows taken out, the tombs taken apart or destroyed, and the graves violated. Saint-Denis was successively transformed into the "Temple of the Reason," a grain warehouse and a military hospital.

In 1805, with the establishment of the Empire, Napoleon ordered the restoration of Saint-Denis. A year later, he decided to consecrate the church of Saint-Denis to the Emperors' sepultures. In 1813 the architect Debret started working on the church. His work was a disaster and as a result one of the church's two spires had to be demolished in 1846. Today, the church has still only got one spire. Work continued throughout the 19th century, under the supervision of Viollet-le-Duc [famous for his work on Notre Dame in Paris] after 1846.

  • Branislav Brankovic, Saint-Denis' Basilica Available for sale in the abbey
  • Alain Erlande-Brandeburg, The Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, Volume II, The Royal Tombs Available for sale in the abbey
  • "Gardner's Art Through the Ages, Tenth Edition," by Richard G. Tansey and Fred S. Kleiner. Harcourt Brace College Pub. 1996
  • Allrefercom

Romanesque crypt
Click on illustration for larger size

Gothic rib vaults

Photos and their arrangement © 2005 Chuck LaChiusa
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