The Basilica of St Denis is undergoing some major restoration work on its façade. Based on what I’ve seen so far, this work will go a long way to restoring the basilica back to some of its former glory. I will leave the question about the implications associated with restoration of historical sites for another post. Here I want to showcase the differences of the basilica since work on it began last year.
Situated about 9 miles from Paris, the basilica of St Denis exists in relative obscurity in comparison to its better known counterpart Notre Dame. This is a shame since without St Denis the current Notre Dame may have looked quite different. The site has boasted a religious presence for nearly 1500 years when a monastery dedicated to the patron saint of France was built in the 5th century on top of a Gallo-Roman cemetery. The remains of the Gallo-Roman cemetery can be seen in the basilica’s crypt and well worth the 7€ to view it. By the 7th century the contemporary structure was in a state of disrepair and the monastic community was keen on building a grander edifice. Of course, the perennial problem that afflicts all construction projects, also afflicted the monks – money.
In order to secure the funding the monks appealed to Dagobert I, the last of the important Merovingian kings. And in order to really highlight the need for the money, the monks conveniently found the body of Saint Denis. How could the king now refuse to help fund the construction of a shrine now that the body of France’s patron saint had been in his proper resting place.
The story was of course, that Denis had been martyred in the 2nd century on Montmartre, but according to the hagiographers, Denis picked up his head and walked to where he was supposed to rest, conveniently right under the foundations of a shrine to be built in his memory.
Whether Dagobert bought the story or not is irrelevant. When the monks approached the king with their proposal, he recognized an opportunity to strengthen his power base.
During his reign, Dagobert pursued his ambition to create a unified French kingdom, with Paris as its capital and connecting himself with the monastery at St Denis was part of this ambition.
The basilica became the intersection for royal and religious authority in France as the location of the most important saint in France added legitimacy to the monarchy and in turn the monarchy provided important protections to the church. Upon his death, Dagobert became one of the first kings to be interred at St Denis, though it would not be until the Carolingians that the basilica would act as a royal necropolis.
In the 12th century under the reign of Louis VII, the relationship between St Denis and the French monarchy reached its apex. Under the direction of the extremely capable and ambitious Abbot Suger who acted as tutor to Louis VII helped reinforce the special relationship between the king and the monastery. It was under Suger’s tenure that the current basilica first came into being. The former structure was completely inadequate to service the thousands of pilgrims who came to view the relics of St Denis. Thus the rebuilding of the basilica was undertaken for commercial reasons to increase tourist traffic. The result was the first “Gothic” cathedral that served as the basic template for the explosion of Gothic cathedrals throughout Europe. By this time, the necropolis had become established as the resting place for the kings of France, right up to the French Revolution when the Revolutionaries dug up the graves and desecrated the bodies and destroyed the funerary statuary.
Among the restorations, I am particularly excited about the rebuilding of the north tower which was torn down more than a hundred years ago. Once that is completed we will finally be able to view the basilica as it was meant to be when envisioned by Abbot Suger. There may no longer be a French monarchy, but Suger’s monument to the power of the church and state has been given a new lease of life.