The DougBlog
"Et sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!" —Baudelaire

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Paris—and a Preview—Part 2: The Basilica of Saint-Denis

I used my other bit of free time for a visit to the Basilique Saint-Denis on the outskirts of Paris. It’s where nearly all of the French kings and queens of the last 1500 years are buried. You may recall that I tried to visit when I was in Paris with Missy last year but got there late in the day—only to find that the tombs (and much of the interior) closed early! So it was time for me to fill that “hole in my soul”…

It was well worth the wait. It’s really a beautiful and fascinating place to visit, and I highly recommend it. The church itself is glorious and it’s actually considered to be the first gothic building ever. It was the perfect time of day as well as afternoon sun shone through the stained glass windows to cover the grey interior with a myriad of splashes of color.

Most of the church itself was built in the 1100s, and it is always awe-inspiring to think that such a thing could be constructed before the modern era—and survive until today. The sense of history is palpable: Even Joan of Arc worshiped here. The exterior is simple. It could use a good scrubbing, but the heavy doors were impressive:

The interior is in much better shape (as always, you can click any image to enlarge):

Architecturally, the most impressive part is a portion called the Chevet. It is replete with stained glass windows whose rich colors illuminated the space in a magical way:

Examining the stained glass itself, I noticed this horrifying little scene front and center:

I was a little disturbed until I learned the story of St. Denis himself. According to legend, he was beheaded by the Romans for proselytizing. Then he picked up his own head and walked two miles before finally dropping dead on the spot where this Basilica now stands. It’s not the sort of thing you typically see in stained glass (you can see his neck bones!) but at least now it made sense. And I do enjoy the reaction of the other figure who—rather than falling to his knees in prayer and penance in some “oh what a miracle” reaction—looks more like a B-movie character running from the headless zombie.

But enough of that business. Beautiful churches in France are a Euro a dozen—I came here to see dead people!

What sets this church apart is its role as a royal necropolis. It was founded in the 600s by King Dagobert I (cool name!) who was then buried here. Most rulers (and many royal family members) since have been buried here as well, and the tombs of a few earlier royals were also moved here from their original locations. So first of all, it is extraordinary that nearly all the kings from more than a millennium are buried in one place. Just about every tomb is designed with a “recumbent statue”: a horizontal effigy of that person lying on top of their own tomb as though on their deathbed. But having been created over the course of 1500 years, the tombs have very different styles and represent a sort of timeline of art history. Most of them are simple but others are quite large and ornate. And the most interesting thing about them will be revealed later in this entry (Ha! A cliffhanger!)

These are typical royal tombs:

Also of note, most of them have two little doggies sleeping at their feet! I’m not sure why, but it’s cute:

Here are—stylistically and chronologically—the oldest tombs in the joint, those of Clovis I, Childebert I, and Fredegonde (more cool names!):

Here’s one of the more ornate tombs: King Francois I (1494-1547) and his wife Claude de France, designed to look like a triumphal arch:

Note that these statues are sculpted in a very different style from the earlier ones—much more fluid than the “stiff “statues of the older royals. Note as well that they are both nude and barely covering themselves for modesty—acknowledging that in death we are all the same before God’s eyes (of course the net-net of this design is that their toes become the most prominent feature):

Another ornate tomb, that of Henri II and is famous wife, Catherine de Medici:

Here’s the tomb of Dagobert I himself, the founder of this church. He was the only one lying on his side in his statue (see him at the bottom?). As a side-sleeper myself, I appreciated this:

This is Charles V and Jeanne de Bourbon; I was struck by the way their simple tomb was dappled by sunlight through the stained glass windows:

Here’s the “Sun King” and builder of Versailles, Louis XIV. Pretty understated for such a powerful and splashy ruler. Maybe he blew all his money on the palace:

This reliquary containing his wrist bones is all that is left of Saint Louis (also known as King Louis IX):

Sweet detail of one tomb, that of Prince Philippe de France:

Scary detail of another tomb:

So here’s where things start to get a little freaky and require a little history lesson and explanation. These are the “Bourbon graves”:

They were installed by the one of the last Kings of France, Louis XVIII. He ruled during a brief revival of the monarchy after Napoleon’s defeat, and he is buried in one of them. He re-buried the remains of his executed predecessors Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette here as well:

(Incidentally, he also commissioned this memorial statue of Louis and Marie Antoinette that’s installed in a different part of the church):

Anyhoo, two of the other Bourbon tombs contain the remains of two random old royals he brought from elsewhere in France. Now here’s the catch I referred to earlier: other than these Bourbon tombs, all of the others in the church are EMPTY!!

During the French Revolution the revolutionaries got a little carried away in their attempts to destroy anything and everything associated with the monarchy. There was a plan in 1793 to destroy all the royal tombs of St Denis. A level headed art professor intervened, arguing that regardless of political inclinations the tombs themselves were important works of French art and should be preserved. The revolutionaries agreed and left the tombs alone…but they removed all the bodies of the kings and queens and buried them in two giant pits next to the church! Many of the tombs were then moved to museums. After this, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined and buried in a secret location, and their young son—who never really had a chance to rule but technically became Louis XVII upon his father’s death—died in captivity and was buried in an unknown pauper’s grave (but not before his attending physician removed and saved his heart as a souvenir).

So as part of King Louis XVIII’s attempt to restore the dignity of the monarchy, he had all of the bodies dug up. Of course by then they were just a jumble of random bones and no one could tell whose were whose. So all of the bones were sealed inside the walls of a small chapel in the church where two giant plaques list the names of all the people whose bones rest behind them:

So that all makes it a little odd, and since they were all more or less related I’m not sure that even modern-day DNA testing could do anything about it. And here’s another odd factor at play: the heart of little Louis XVII (again, removed before his body was cast into a pauper’s grave by revolutionaries) was mummified and passed hands for 200 years with no proof of authenticity. A few years ago, DNA testing compared it with a lock of Marie Antoinette’s hair and it was a perfect match—proving that this was indeed the heart of her son. So in 2004 it was also placed in Saint Denis as well:

It is a very interesting visit, both sublime in its beauty and fascinating in its history. I highly recommend it for anyone’s future visit to the City of Lights.

And now…a PREVIEW!

Speaking of future visits, my own adventures as I road trip from Paris to Nice will begin on September 21st, so stay tuned to the DougBlog. Here’s the general itinerary:

After flying into Paris I drive directly to the Loire Valley to visit the great chateaux of Chambord and Chenonceaux. Then it’s down to the ancient region of Aquitaine and the Dordogne. Then two big driving days take me across the country to the town of Evian-les-bains (yes, that Evian) on the shore of Lake Geneva. From here I take several days to drive much of the famed “Route des Grandes Alpes”, said to be one of Europe’s most magnificent drives through all of the high passes of the French Alps. I end up in the south were I spend a few days each in Provence and the Côte d’Azur:

So until then…A bientôt!

But first…a few parting shots

A few months ago I was in Paris for business but it was one of those quick trips where I never even got outside my hotel. There are few cities sadder to see that happen than Paris! But here are a few photos…

View from my window at the high-rise Hôtel Concorde La Fayette:

And speaking of the Hôtel Concorde La Fayette (as my friend Janét would say), “this is a filthy place!”:

The main selling point is the rooftop bar, which was apparently decorated in 1982:

However, there was live music and the reflections and view made for some interesting shots:

On a random note, Lufthansa officially proclaimed by bag to be HOT!:

Finally, upon my return to New York I ordered some Chinese food and got this most interesting fortune:

I’m still waiting for this dental message and will certainly pass it along when I hear anything. Until then, see you soon for some more French fun and adventures!


  • That is the strangest fortune I've even seen. I love your posts about these royal graves, very interesting! I did not know about young Louis heart being removed, mummified and passed around... very cool facts.

    By Blogger Jennifer Inman, at 8:42 PM  

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