The Basilica of St. Denis, so-called today, built over the remains of the martyred St. Denis, is in a way the counterpart of the Cathedral of Reims, in that it also is intimately associated with the Kings of France. In the former they were, almost without exception, crowned; and here, at St. Denis, are the memorials of their greatness, and in many cases their actual tombs. Thus far and no farther may the similarity be said to exist. The old Abbey of St. Denis has little in common, architecturally, with the grand Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims. Of the two, St. Denis is much the older foundation, and from the point of view of romance and sentiment holds perhaps the premier place, as well.
The history of the city is one of the most interesting and diversified of all in the domain of the Kings of France. A Benedictine abbey was founded here in the reign of Dagobert L, and, under the Carlovingian dynasty, immediately took on political as well as devout significance. The Abbot of St. Denis journeyed to Rome in 75 1 A. D., and secured for Pepin the papal confirmation of his kingship. Pope Stephen took refuge here from the Lombards in 754 A. D., during which time he anointed the king’s sons, Charles and Charlemagne; upon the consecration of which act Pepin handed over to his sons the right and title to his dominions.
Upon the advice of the Abbot Suger, Louis VI. adopted the Oriflamme, or standard of St. Denis, as the banner of the Kings of France, and, for long after, its red and gold colourings hung above the altar,-only to be removed when the king should take the field in person.
Abelard, of famed romance, was a monk of the abbey in the twelfth century; and, in the absence of the sovereign (Louis VII) in the Holy Land during the mid-century, the Abbe Suger administered full well the affairs of the kingdom. This renowned abbot and true lover of art died in 1151 at St. Denis.
In 1429 ” the Maid of Orleans ” here delivered up her arms; and a century and a half later that sturdy Protestant, Henry, abjured the faith to which he had hitherto so tenaciously clung. In this church, too, the great Napoleon married Marie Louise in 1810: and his later namesake, some fifty years after, erected a mausoleum in the crypt, known as the Caveau Imperial, the burial vault of his dynasty, which, however, has never been so used.
Such in brief is the record of some of the more important affairs of church and state, which are identified with this fine old cathedral. The usual books of reference give lengthy lists of the various tombs and monuments which exist. It is a pity, however, that, in spite of the laudable ambition of preserving here, in a sort of kingly Valhalla, the memory of the rulers of a past age, it has degenerated, in turn, to a mere show-place, with little enough of the real sentiment remaining to satisfy the seriously inclined, who perforce would wish to be reminded in some more subtle way than by a mere ” rush around the exhibits,” which is about all the halfhourly, personally conducted excursions, with appropriate fees to be delivered up here and there, amounts to. But for this, there would still be some of the charm and reverence which such a noble memorial should inspire, in spite of the fact that revolution and desecration have played more than a usual share in the general derangement of the original plans.
Up to the time of Henry IV. the monarchs were mostly interred in separate tombs, but, following him, his immediate successors were buried in a common vault. During the Revolution, the Convention decreed that the royal tombs should be destroyed, and so they mostly were, – the bodies dug up and interred, if so the process can be called, in a common grave. In 1817 Louis XVIII. caused the remains of his ancestors, as well as Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette, to be transferred here from the Madeleine, and in turn he himself was buried here, as well as the Duc de Berry and several of his children. The preservation of such of the tombs as survived the many vicissitudes to which they were put, is due to the fact that many of them were at one time removed to the Musee des Petits-Augustines, now the Palace des Beaux Arts, at Paris; but in 1817 Louis XVIII. ordered them to be replaced in the crypt of St. Denis; not, however, on the sites which they formerly occupied, but in an arbitrary manner which only the great abilities of M. Viollet-le-Duc, who undertook their rearrangement and restoration, were able to present in some coherent manner for the marvel of future generations. There are now therein over fifty monuments and tombs, besides various statues, medallions, and other memorials.
From an architectural point of view, we have to consider the Basilique de St. Denis no longer a cathedral, as one of the earliest Gothic examples in France, though at first glance little enough of the true Gothic feeling is apparent. About the year 275 a chapel was built here above the grave of St. Dionysius, the first Bishop of Paris. This was followed by a large basilica, ultimately given over to the uses of monks of the Benedictine order. Evidences of this former construction are supposed by archeologists to still remain, but little, earlier than the structure of the Abbe Suger, meets the eye today. Strong is the trace of the development from the Romanesque facade, completed in 1140, to pure Gothic construction of a century later. In this church is commonly supposed to be exhibited for the first time, bearing in mind that the date of its consecration was 1144, a complete system of buttresses accompanying the pointed arch of the vaulting, though in conjunction with semicircular vaulting in the choir aisles.
The west facade is the most notable part of Suger’s building. It contains three deeply recessed round arched portals, decorated with sculpture, but so disfigured, or at least modified from their original forms in an attempt to replace the ravages of time and spoliation, that one can not well judge of their original merit. The south portal shows symbolical figures of the months and of ” St. Dionysius in Prison;” the central doorway a “Last Judgment,” and the ” Wise and Foolish Virgins; ” while the north portal depicts ” St. Dionysius on His Way to Martyrdom,” and ” The Signs of the Zodiac.”
A curious and unusual effect of the upper portion of this grim facade, like a similar work at Dol-de-Bretagne, is a range of battlements which were erected for defensive purposes in the fourteenth century. The nave rises high above this, surmounted by a statue of St. Denis. Above the lateral portals of the facade are two towers, that on the right rising two stages above the embattled crest, while that on the left stops at that level. The spire with which it was formerly surmounted was ruined by lightning early in the nineteenth century.
The choir, with its radiating chapels, is of a Romanesque order, with the Gothic attribute of the flying buttress in a high degree of development.
A general restoration was carried out in the thirteenth century by the successors of Suger, the Abbes Eudes Clement and Matthieu de Vendome, in the best Gothic of the time; and it is to their excellently planned work that the general fine effect of the present interior arrangements may properly enough be accredited, though for a fact it seldom is so. A later restoration, the removing of the ruin wrought by the Revolution, did not succeed so well. It was not until the really great work of Violletle-Duc, under Napoleon III., that this grand building finally took on again an acceptable form.
The general interior arrangements, though today apparently subservient to the common attributes of a show-house with its innumerable guides, functionaries, and fees, are simple and impressive so far as structural elements are concerned. As for decorations, they are mostly to be found in that gorgeous array of monuments and tombs before mentioned. The entrance proper, or vestibule, is of Suger’s era and is gloomy and dull, in strong contrast with the noble and impressive nave, which contains thirty-seven enormously high windows and a handsome triforium gallery. This portion dates from the thirteenth century, or immediately following Suger’s regime. The excellent stained glass is modern. The transepts are mere rudimentary elements, suggested only by the interior arrangement of the piers, and are simple and impressive.