Just outside the Paris city limits lies a completely overlooked hidden gem in Paris, the fantastic and underrated Cathedral Basilica de Saint-Denis. It’s downright astonishing that there aren’t more tourists there. Really, I don’t say this lightly. It’s a French national treasure.
Saint-Denis is the birthplace of Gothic architecture. It heralds Europe’s transition from a clunky Romanesque style to a more elegant Gothic one. It’s one of the most historic and religiously important buildings in Paris. And it’s essentially a museum of monumental French religious sculpture.
As the world’s first Gothic church, the basilica is even on the tentative UNESCO list. If it still had its north tower, it might be already.
Saint-Denis is a veritable treasure trove of French history. Its namesake is a 3rd century decapitated saint. And Saint-Denis is the preferred burial site of French royalty, showcasing the death styles of the rich and famous.
The Basilica of Saint-Denis should definitely be on everyone’s must see list for Paris, even if it requires a metro ride. Since it’s not (at least yet), the basilica is ideal spot for a quiet contemplative visit — a rare thing in sometimes overcrowded Paris. If you don’t visit it on your first visit to Paris, schedule Saint-Denis for your second.
Off With His Head! The Legend of Saint Denis
The Basilica of Saint-Denis is named after France’s most famous “Cephalophoric” saint, Saint Denis, the first Bishop of Paris.
Cephalophore is a term the Catholic church invented for saints who carry their decapitated heads, signifying they’re divine and have died a martyr’s death. There were apparently so many of these saints, a new word was required.
These saints were amazing. They could walk and talk while carrying their own heads. Legend holds that, around 250 A.D., during an anti-Christian epoch, the Romans beheaded Saint Denis in Montmartre for having the gaul to try to evangelize Gaul. There’s a commemorative decapitated statue at Square Suzanne Buisson in Montmartre.
The corpse-like Saint Denis then carried his head down the Rue de Martyrs and over 4 miles to the current location of the Basilica of Saint-Denis. Losing his head wasn’t enough to silence him. Saint Denis delivered a sermon, before finally collapsing.
You can see the famous Cephalophore on the facade of Notre Dame de Paris, to the left of the main door. His statue survived the fire. He also makes on appearance on the facade of Reims Cathedral. His death is a colorful tale and a popular subject for artists.
History of the Basilica Saint-Denis
Saint Denis’ resting place became a pilgrimage site. In the 7th century, the basilica’s chief benefactor, the Merovingian King Dagobert, transformed the pilgrimage shrine into the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Denis. Dagobert was the first French king to be buried there, kicking off the tradition.
In the 12th century, the abbey was expanded by Abbot Suger, a French holy man, statesman, and advisor to the king. Abbot Sugar was innovative. To accommodate the expansion, he introduced technologically advanced Gothic elements — pointed arches, flying buttresses, and ribbed vaults.
This “Rayonnant Gothic” style was a “transformation of stone into something light and airy.” In the then prevailing rather clunky Romanesque style, the stone was was “simply to hold the building up.”
Through the sheer spiritual force of his new building, Abbot Sugar hoped to elevate the abbey and inspire the Benedictine monks, whose order needed some major cleaning up. Falling into complacency and gorging on saturated fats, the monks had become fat, worldly, and depraved.
Peter Abelard, the religious philosopher of Abelard and Heloise fame, accused the monks of “intolerably foul practices, both in private and in public.” It’s unclear whether Abelard was behaving much better … he seduced his student. Abelard and Heloise’s grave is in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
The basilica was used for the coronation of French queens, though the French Kings were crowned at Reims Cathedral. In 1966, the Basilica Saint-Denis was renamed a cathedral, so it now carries both descriptors. It’s also on UNESCO’s “tentative” list for World Heritage Site designation.
The Exterior of the Basilica
Saint-Denis is considered the birthplace of Gothic architecture and a model for other French cathedrals. Its exterior is stark and famously lopsided. Perhaps that’s what dissuades some tourists from visiting.
With its arched portals, the facade isn’t truly Gothic. It echoes St. Étienne in Caen, the burial place of the Dukes of Normandy. Bishop Suger gifted the bronze doors.
The more ornate North Tower was struck by lightning in 1837 and suffered from a storm in 1840. In 1847, Viollet-le-Duc dismantled it. It was never rebuilt.
But in March 2013, the mayor of the town of Saint-Denis announced the future reconstruction of the tower. Construction is set to begin in May 2020 and last until 2031. Such a major reconstruction is extremely exciting, even if controversially expensive.
The Basilica Interior
The new Rayonnant style reduced the width and breath of the previously thick and bulky walls. The new apse had aforest of monolithic columns. The columns supported one of the first successful ribbed vaults. In the nave, vast stained glass windows replaced solid masonry. It was revolutionary.
The nave is 188 meters long and 30 meters high. As About Suger intended, the 13th century choir is suffused with light and beautiful clerestory windows.
The Royal Necropolis of Saint-Denis Basilica
The most fascinating part of the basilica, which completely makes it worth the short Metro ride, is the royal necropolis. And it’s not just a necropolis. These are high art effigies, similar to those in Pere Lachaise Cemetery. The opulent tombs were a symbol of royal power in those days.
During the French Revolution, the basilica were ransacked. The ornate tombs were seen as untoward symbols of the Ancien Régime. Tombs were destroyed and grave robbers swooped up any jewels or valuables inside. The royal remains were mixed with lime and thrown into two mass graves in the abbey cemetery.
Despite all that, Saint-Denis still houses over 70 royal tombs. Many of the tombs and sculptures were hidden during the bloody events. Archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir stashed some of them in the Museum of French Monuments. Eventually, Napoleon reopened the basilica in 1806.
All but 3 of France’s kings are buried here, along with other nobility. Here’s a map of the tombs. There’s definitely some serious monarchial musk in the air at Saint-Denis.
The most important tombs are those of Dagobert I, Clovis I, Catherine de Medicis, Francois I, Louis XV, Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette. Louis XVIII was the last king to be buried here, in 1824. It’s Paris’ royal hall of fame.
Even Louis XIV’s body is buried there. But not all of it. As was the custom then, the king’s entrails were transported to Notre Dame Cathedral and his heart placed in the church of Saint-Louis des Jésuites. They even had “heart tombs” back then. The king’s heart was a symbol of political power, so the kings spread their hearts around France.
The royal tombs are mainly in the nave. The monarchs are represented in carved recumbent effigies or on raised bases.
Many of their faces are supposedly realistic, modeled on death masks. Some were severely damaged or intentionally vandalized during the French Revolution. They were subsequently restored by architect Viollet-le-Duc in 1860.
Tombs of the non-royal saints are in the side chapels.
The Saint-Denis Crypt
You can also venture into the dimly lit Romanesque crypt. Parts of the crypt survive from the 8th century. You’ll find the tombs of St. Denis (possibly), the Royal Ossuary, Suger’s tomb, and the Bourbon Chapel.
The Bourbon Chapel is open to the public. It holds some effigies and the remains of the kings and queens unceremoniously thrown into the open cemetery. With few exceptions, the bodies couldn’t be identified so were put in an ossuary. It’s marked by a black plate in the crypt.
Viollet-le-Duc made the first excavations of the crypt in the mid-nineteenth century. Nearly a century later, excavations were resumed. Between 1953-1973, archaeologists made further studies.
Beneath the high altar, a vast pit was uncovered. It was assumed to be grave of Saint Denis. However, there was no body in it. The derivation of the pit is still a subject of controversy.
Put the Basilica of Saint-Denis on your to do list for Paris. It’s a vivid example of the early stages of the Gothic movement, a space that truly embodies a balance between life and death.
Practical Information for Visiting the Basilica de Saint-Denis:
Address: 1 rue de la Legion D Honneur, 93200 Saint-Denis, France
Hours: Open Apr 1 to Sept 30: Mon to Sat from 10:00 am to 6:15 pm & Sun from noon to 6:15 pm. From Oct 1 to Mar 31: Mon to Sat from 10:00 am to 5:15 pm & Sunday noon to 5:15 pm
Entry fee: Entry to the main nave is free. Access to the tombs and crypt is adults 9 €, under 26 7 €, under 18 years 3 €, audioguide, 4.50 €
Metro: Gare Saint-Lazare and the Champs-Élysées
Pro tip: It’s cold inside, even in the summer.
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