A Marvelous Pilgrimage Site and Royal Necropolis
Located just outside the bounds of Paris, the Cathedral Basilica of Saint-Denis is one of the world's most astounding sites of gothic architecture and French royal history. However, it often gets overlooked by tourists (who flock to the better-known Notre Dame Cathedral or Sainte-Chapelle.) It is thought to be the earliest advanced example of Gothic-style architecture, built between 1140 and 1144.
Housing the remains of Saint-Denis, patron saint of France (martyred in 250 AD), the site has been visited by travelers, pilgrims, and tourists alike since the 5th century. Although the site of the current cathedral and royal necropolis was previously used as a Gallo-Roman cemetery and a small church was built around St. Denis' grave in 475, the Merovingian king Dagobert subsequently commissioned a larger church here in the 7th century. St. Denis' bones were then moved into the basilica's crypts, where the tomb can still be seen.
The cathedral was considered so holy that Pepin the Short, father of Charlemagne, was crowned king in St. Denis Basilica in 754. He was subsequently buried there, along with most of the kings and queens of France from the 6th century until Louis XVIII's death in 1824. The basilica (which became a cathedral in 1966) is divided into two sections. The light-filled necropolis boasts over 70 recumbent statues and tombs marking the final resting places of some of France's most colorful characters. 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses, and 10 important historical figures are buried here. Beneath the reclining effigies, dappled by the Cathedral's ethereal light, lies the crypt, where visitors can find the tombs of St. Denis and the last of the French Bourbon kings, including the ill-fated Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, beheaded during the French Revolution.
Although it once took pilgrims from all over France days on foot to reach the Basilica, St. Denis is thankfully only a short metro ride away from central Paris.
Location and Transportation
Address: 1 rue de la Légion d'honneur, Saint-Denis 93200
Metro: Basilique de St. Denis (line 13)
The cathedral and necropolis are open throughout the year, with just a few exceptions.
- January 2nd to March 31st: 10 am to 5:15, Sundays 12 to 5:15 pm
- April 1st to September 30th: 10 am to 6:15 pm, Sundays 12 to 6:15 pm
- October 1st to March 31st: 10 am to 5:15 pm, Sundays 12 to 5:15 pm
Last admission is 30 minutes before closing. Check the official website in case there are exceptional opening hours to avoid disappointment.
Closed: January 1st, May 1st, and December 25th during some religious services.
Admission to the basilica is free, but tickets are required to access the necropolis and the crypt. Adults pay full price for entrance while minors under 18 can enter for free if they are accompanied by an adult. Free entry is also granted to disabled visitors and their escorts (inquire ahead when booking a tour), unemployed visitors, and EU citizens under 26 years old (with a valid EU passport or ID card).
Guided tours are available for individuals or for groups. To book, call +33 1 48 09 83 54. Private guided tours are also available in a variety of languages (French, English, Spanish, and French Sign Language).
The basilica is fully accessible to disabled visitors, but special assistance may need to be reserved in advance.
Western Rose Window at Cathedral St Denis
In the 12th century, Abbot Suger transformed Dagobert's dilapidated 7th-century church into an architectural marvel. It was fitted with vivid stained glass windows, a cross-ribbed vaulted ceiling, flying buttresses, and pointed arches, among a variety of other features. As such, it is widely considered to be one of the first truly Gothic buildings, both in style and structure.
Shown here is St. Denis' western rose window, as seen from the entrance to the necropolis. The two rose windows were added in the 19th century to replace the medieval originals. These were unfortunately destroyed during the French Revolution of 1789; the lead was melted and used for weaponry.
Stained Glass: Reaching Toward the Light
In the Middle Ages, light was a symbol of the divine, heavenly world, often serving as a metaphor for God. In fitting the basilica with a panoply of stained glass windows, Abbot Suger hoped to encourage worshipers to reach towards the bright, spiritual realm, leaving behind the darkness of the earthly world. At St. Denis, light poetically paints the floors, walls, and tombs with bursts of color that change position and quality as the day progresses. It remains an inspiration for visitors and even for artists, the latter of whom often set up canvases in the central part of the light-filled necropolis to paint.
Recumbent Effigies of Kings, Queens, and More
As mentioned earlier, Saint-Denis is the resting place to dozens of French queens, kings, princesses, and other members of royal lineages, the most important of whom were built remarkable recumbent effigies. These recumbent statues mark the various trends in funeral art. In the 12th century, for example, figures were depicted with their eyes open, while the Renaissance was marked by the production of much larger statues. These practices helped to solidify the Christian association between death and the promise of resurrection.
Detail of Recumbent Effigies
Some of the recumbent figures at St. Denis inspire pity, such as this family of royals, including a small child that apparently lost its life all too early. This was, sadly, not an unusual occurrence in medieval life, even for the wealthiest members of society.
Tomb of King Dagobert I
King Dagobert I of France was responsible for the reconstruction of St Denis as a Benedictine monastery devoted to St. Denis, replacing the small church commissioned by St. Geneviève that had previously occupied the site.
Dagobert's imposing tomb, pictured above, is located at the site of the king's interment in 639, next to St. Denis' relics.
This grand tribute visible to visitors was reconstructed in the thirteenth century and tells the story of the vision of John the hermit: the soul of the king is taken to Hell due to his theft of church property, but Saints Denis, Martin, and Maurice intercept the devils and take the soul, bringing it to Heaven. As such, it reinforces the saint as a guardian of the Capetian kings and their spiritual selves.
The Crypt of St Denis
St. Denis Basilica is, unsurprisingly, dedicated to the saint of the same name, the first bishop of France who lived during the 3rd century. According to mythological accounts, he was beheaded in Montmartre (now a part of Paris but then a small town north of the city walls) during the Roman persecution of Christians, but picked up his head and carried it ten kilometers to his desired burial place, where St. Denis Basilica now stands. It is said that during his long walk his head continued to preach sermons. In art, he is often depicted as a cephalophore - a saint carrying his own head.
His tomb is located in the archaeological crypt of the basilica (pictured above), along with those of Saints Rustique and Eleuthère.
The Romanesque crypt is also the burial site of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette who were initially interred at the Madeleine but subsequently moved to St. Denis under Louis XVIII.
Tomb Details (From the Surprising to the Amusing)
Many of the tombs at St. Denis feature amusing details that might be missed at first glance. Look out for cute figures here and there, such as these two medieval scholars intently deciphering a book. Other tombs show small animals (dogs, rabbits, etc) lying at the feet of the recumbent kings and queens.
Plate Commemorating Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc was one of the many visitors to St. Denis during the 15th century, laying down her arms at the altar of St. Denis following an injury. She is now considered one of the patron saints of France.