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

2005 photos - Interior and Royal Tombs
St. Denis Basilica,  Paris, France

Illustrations Beneath Text

Suger rebuilt the narthex (Enclosed, sacred, single-story vestiblue at the western end of the church) and chancel and added an ambulatory with stained glass windows, but he left the nave untouched. The nave was redesigned by 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.

Royal tombs: According to the legend Saint Denis was beheaded by the Romans on the hill now known as Montmartre, after which he picked up his head and walked away. He was buried at the spot where he fell and abbey was built to mark the place. From the 6th century on, French kings chose the abbey as their place of burial.

During the French Revolution, in 1793, the French desecrated the Royal Tombs at St. Denis. They opened the tombs and took out the bodies, which were dumped in two large pits nearby. Some people took souvenirs, like a shoulder blade of Hugues Capet (d. 996), founder of the Capet dynasty, or the beard of king Henri IV (d. 1610). The archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir saved many of the monuments from destruction, by claiming them for his Museum of French Monuments. In the following years the abbey decayed, because in revolutionary France Christianity had been replaced by the Religion of Reason.

Emperor Napoleon I reopened the church in 1806, after some urgent repairs. He was as much an enemy of the Bourbon kings as the revolutionaries were, so the royal remains were left in their mass-graves.

After Napoleon's first exile, to the island of Elba, the Bourbons briefly returned to power. They ordered a search for the corpses of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, which were found on 21 January 1815 and brought to St. Denis. They were buried in the crypt.

After Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo (1815) the Bourbons had the opportunity to search for the remains of their ancestors. The mass-graves were opened in 1817, but it had of course become impossible to distinguish any individuals in the mass of bones. Therefore, the remains were put in a small room in St. Denis' crypt, behind two marble plates with all their names on them. King Louis XVIII, who died on 16 September 1824, was buried in the center of the crypt, close to the graves of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

The architect Viollet-le-Duc, famous for his work on Notre Dame in Paris, worked on St. Denis from 1858 till his death in 1879. The monuments that were taken to the Museum of French Monuments were returned and the church (which became a cathedral in 1966) now also has a collection of monuments from Parisian churches which were demolished during the French Revolution. The corpse of king Louis VII (d. 1180), who had been buried elsewhere and had escaped the attention of the revolutionaries, was brought to St. Denis and buried in the crypt.

Click on illustrations for larger size -- and additional information

Clustered pillars

Gothic ribbed vault


Detail from previous photo

Detail from previous photo


Multifoil arch

Quatrefoil pattern

Marble floor

Marble floor - Multifoil patterns


Royal tombs in the north transept . . .

Monument of François I


Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

Detail from previous photo



Source of text: The Destruction of the Royal Tombs in Saint Denis, Royal Necropolis of France

Photos and their arrangement © 2005 Chuck LaChiusa
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