The Basilica of Saint-Denis stands on the site of a Gallo-Roman cemetery, and the archeological remains still lie beneath the cathedral. The people buried there seem to have had a faith that was a mix of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs and practices.
The site is believed to be the burial place of the first bishop of Paris who was martyred around 250 and whose story was embellished over the centuries. One legend states that he was decapitated on the Hill of Montmarte and subsequently carried his head to the site of the current church, indicating where he wanted to be buried.
In approximately 475 St. Genevieve founded a church on the site. Dagobert I, king of the Franks, added a Benedictine monastery there and expanded the church into the Abbey of Saint Denis.
Often erected outside cities and over the tomb of a saint, basilicas frequently led to the development of neighborhoods or market towns, such as the city of Saint-Denis, which was built around the abbey and its economic potential.
In addition to a Carolingian crypt, part of the building consecrated by Charlemagne in 775, it retains vestiges of two structures that played a pivotal role in the development of religious architecture: Suger’s chevet, a veritable hymn to light and the manifesto of the nascent Gothic art and the part that was rebuilt in Saint Louis’ time, whose vast transept was designed to house royal tombs.
A place of memory, in the Middle Ages the Saint-Denis monastery linked its destiny to that of royalty, gradually asserting itself as the preferred final resting place of royal dynasties, helped by the cult of Saint Denis. All but three of the monarchs of France from the 10th century until 1789 have their remains there. Forty-two kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses and 10 nobles were ultimately laid to rest there and it is often referred to as the “royal necropolis of France”. With over 70 recumbent figures and monumental tombs, the basilica’s royal necropolis constitutes the most important collection of funerary sculptures from the 12th to the 16th centuries.
Throughout history, sovereigns have sought legitimacy, which explains in part why they wanted to be laid to rest near Saint Denis’ relics. The king believed that, through the power of the holy martyr, he would gain power and protection during his lifetime, especially in battle, as well as direct access to Paradise.
The rallying cry of the knights on the battlefield in the 12th and 13th centuries, inscribed on Saint-Denis’ famous oriflamme, a scarlet banner powdered with gold flames. ‘Montjoie saint Denis’ became the motto of the kingdom of France, which thus placed itself under the protection of Saint Denis, its patron saint. Systematically raised in wartime, the ensign was given to sovereigns by the abbot on the altar of the holy martyrs. It was one of the major objects of the medieval epic around which early national sentiment began to unfold. A copy of the banner is kept at the basilica.
The Hundred Years War, the wars of religion and political unrest all contributed to the decline of the royal abbey of Saint-Denis, well before the Revolution precipitated it. In 1793, the revolutionaries attacked the symbols of the monarchy, exhumed remains and buried them in a common grave, but they preserved most of the funerary sculptures, to be used in the education of the people.
In 1806, Napoleon ordered the restoration of the building. Then Louis XVIII, renewing the abbey’s role as a necropolis, exhumed the remains in the common grave and placed them in a vault, in the basilica’s crypt. He also had the remains of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette transferred to the basilica. The restoration work continued throughout the 19th century, under the direction of two architects, Debret and Viollet-le-Duc, who took over in 1846.
In 1966, the basilica became a cathedral, a designation derived from the word cathedra, the bishop’s seat.
The Basilica of St Denis is an architectural landmark as it was the first major structure of which a substantial part was designed and built in the Gothic style. The site is one of France’s most popular tourist attractions.
A very professionally done video by ArtVideos AudeRain offers an introductory tour: