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What to see in Paris instead of Notre-Dame | Basilica Saint-Denis

Marble, life sized tomb statues at Saint Denis church in Paris representing Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

The devastating fire at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, the soul of Paris, means it will be closed to the public for several years. So, what to see instead?

Paris has a lot of beautiful, historic churches. Sainte Chapelle, a stone’s throw from Notre-Dame is even older. Sacré Coeur in Montmartre is extraordinarily pretty. And Basilica of Saint-Denis is the last resting place of many Kings and Queens of France…

Saint-Denis, Paris

Take the journey to the northern outskirt of the city on the #13 Métro line. The Basilique de Saint-Denis stop is about 300m from the cathedral and if you’re lucky, you’ll go on a day the outdoor market is in full swing. (Open Tuesday, Friday and Sunday from 07.30-13.30). Fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, Halal meat, jewellery, fabrics, shoes, and clothes of every description from skimpy lingerie to shapeless, full-length coats drew hundreds of customers to the market. Bumping my way past stall after stall, I was overwhelmed by the smells of spices, the colours of produce, hucksters barking, and shoppers making deals. It’s a big market, around 300 stalls.

I broke out of the crowd and turned toward the basilica. The vibrant atmosphere of the market carried on to the front steps of the church. Inside, the long, narrow nave was bathed in sublime coloured light, so different from the riotous reds, greens and yellows of the market. The cacophony of the modern world was behind me, traded for ancient calm. I marvelled at the spectacularly high vaults and the whisper thin columns. Because the choir was open to the ambulatory, the altar stood in simple elegance, unburdened by dark wood and gilt.

Saint-Denis Basilica

Ancient stone carving of Saint Denis, carrying his own head as the legend goes at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, Paris

According to history, Saint Denis was sent from Italy to Gaul to convert the locals in Paris to Christianity, sometime between the first and third century. The most popular tale of the saint claims the Romans beheaded him and two of his followers at the highest point in the area – now Montmartre. Head in hands, he walked 10km north, preaching all the way before he died. The Basilica of Saint-Denis marks the spot where he finally succumbed.

The older, but less well-known record of his martyrdom, written in 500AD tells a slightly different story. After Denis was beheaded, Catulla, a Roman woman saved Denis’ body and those of his two disciples from being thrown into the Seine. She buried all three bodies with their heads on her property north of the city. Later, a church was built in their memory.

The basilica claims to be the first Gothic-style church ever built. In the 12th century, architect Abbot Suger replaced his small, dark, rib-vaulted, heavy-columned Romanesque design with a much larger church. It boasted narrow columns, pointed arches, buttresses, and coloured light streaming through stained glass clerestory, apse and rose windows. Its delicate beauty is astounding.

Saved from destruction

White marble tomb sculptures of Henri II of France and Catherine de Medici at Saint-Denis Church, Paris

However, if it hadn’t been for one quick thinking man plus an egotist, you might see something totally different. Maybe a ruin or perhaps an apartment block.

In 1793, Revolutionaries decided that as Saint-Denis was the burial place of French royalty, its destruction would symbolize the end of the monarchy. On orders from the Convention Nationale, the first governing body of the Revolution, profanateurs and pilleurs destroyed the crypts. They pulled out the bodies and bones of the monarchy and anyone else who happened to be buried there. The remains were thrown into a pit on the north side of the basilica.

The quick-thinking man we have to thank for saving many of the beautiful tomb sculptures was Alexandra Lenoir. During the Revolution, he was placed in charge of the Commission des Monuments. His mission was to protect sculptures and objects of architectural interest removed from churches and nobles’ houses. The appropriated objets d’art were to be gathered and displayed in a museum for all to see. He saved the marble tomb sculptures by declaring them “monuments of architectural interest.”

Though at least one of these thugs kept a souvenir of his grisly work.

In 2008, a mummified head attributed to Henry IV, one of the kings whose bodies had been thrown in the mass pit, was discovered in the attic of a privately owned house.  In 2010, a team of scientists conducted forensic tests on the well-preserved head and found a mole on the nostril, pierced right ear and scars from a wound.  The markings match those shown in paintings of Henry IV though some say, if it was the king, the brain would have been removed. In this head it is still intact.

The restoration Saint-Denis

Nave of Saint Denis Church, Paris, very high ceiling, stained glass windows casting coloured light over the light stone wallsWhen the monarchy regained the throne in 1816, Lenoir was required to close the museum and return everything to the rightful owners, including the magnificent sculptures of Saint-Denis.

The egotist we have to thank for saving the Basilica is Napoleon Bonaparte. The building fell into ruin after the revolution, but in 1806 Napoleon ordered its restoration and declared it should be not only the burial place of kings, but of emperors.

While most of the stained glass in the church depicts religious themes, like the 12th century panes featuring the life of Christ, Napoleon commissioned one window in the transept to glorify his reconstruction efforts.

Why would France’s first republican leader spend time and money restoring a church? After all, the revolution tried to separate religion and politics. And, the wealth and influence of the church was in part responsible for the disillusionment of the common people.

There was a time when people thought if they were buried close to a saint, they had a better chance of getting into heaven. Whereas many in France had faced death because of their beliefs, Napoleon was spurred into action as an insurance policy of sorts. Better rebuild this monument to kings and God just in case. Napoleon was never buried in Saint- Denis, but the basilica was the beneficiary of his self-doubt. Instead he lies in state at the golden-domed Les Invalides.

Black marble tom statues of a couple praying at the Saint-Denis Basilica Paris

When the monarchy was reinstated after Napoleon’s exile, Louis XVIII exhumed the bodies buried beside the basilica. Without modern day forensics there was no telling one person from another, so he created an ossuary in the crypt into which he placed all the unearthed bones he could find. Their names are inscribed on three large plaques.

There is a garden where the mass grave had been dug and the bones tossed. A great place from which to admire the buttresses supporting the church.

It’s a fascinating monument with a lot of atmosphere, and well worth the detour…

Canadian writer Sue Harper spends back-to back winters in Kelowna B.C. and her adopted hometown, Wanaka, New Zealand. In between, she spends as much time as possible in France. She blogs at: www.seniornomad.wordpress.com

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