It was Sunday morning of this French holiday weekend. We had intended to get up earlier, but the night before we had enjoyed two bottles of wine with dinner and some more drinks following. We didn't arise early.
Which was okay, because we didn't want to arrive at the Basilica of Sant Denis until after the morning Mass was over. We seemed to have timed it well.
Riding out to Sant Denis took around 30-40 minutes on the Metro. As we got more into the outskirts, the cultural make-up of the riders changed and became more diverse. It was good to see this other side of Paris.
Sant Denis was an important town in the past. It was an economic center besides being the home to the abbey and basilica. It was conquered by the Vikings, who rode their boats this far down the river.
The basilica is the first Gothic building, designed by Abbot Suger. It is also the place where the Kings and Queens of France were entombed. I had never been before; Rob insisted we go. As I wrote in the opening post of this series, it was the true highlight of the trip.
The cathedral and town square is nothing fancy, nor is the facade of the church all that striking. However, as one enters, there is a plaque telling you that Jeanne d'Arc presented her arms here in 14 something or other. I get excited thinking about being in places where great events and great persons have been before me.
Then, upon entering the nave, I was immediately struck by the great beauty of the place. I had assumed that the first Gothic building wouldn't be quite as light, airy, and colourful (and some of what you see did come well after Suger -- many of the stained glass windows are a post-Revolution "restoration"). The building soars and invites you to soar as well. You can't stop looking up and enjoying the dazzle of light and colour.
There is little to draw your attention to the chapels along the nave, except for the coronation robes and crown of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (odd place to exhibit them). To enter the chancel and crypt area you must pay a price (or have a museum pass, as we did).
Entering the area where the royals are entombed, the first thing I noticed was a rather large one that had a most interesting feature. Atop the canopy were images of the royal family alive and dressed, but on top of the sarcophagus were very detailed, realistic images of their corpses! Here were the twisted toes of a Queen of France! There would be two more such monuments.
Later I would reflect on the contrast of the dazzling play of light (suggesting mystical qualities) with the startling realism of the corpses of the statues.
The bodies of the royals are not in their vaults. During the Revolution all the bodies were removed and desecrated and combined in a pit. Post-Revolution, they were dug up and collected in a ossuary in the crypt. But most of the sculpture remains, including of such prominent early rulers as Charles Martel and Clovis. Clovis I, the first King of France, had bird droppings on his sculpture. Clearly, there are republican birds in the basilica.
The crypt is a dark, mysterious place. Here one encounters the tomb of Saint Denis, patron saint of Paris. Currently there is an exhibit about St. Denis explaining his story and its development over time and the resulting art based upon it. Denis was a third century Christian missionary to the Franks who was martyred. The original stories had him martyred where the basilica is, but later the legend was that he was beheaded on Montmarte (hence the name) and then his body revived and carried its own head out to where the basilica is. He is represented in art carrying his own detached head.
In the choir one does encounter some of the original Suger-era windows. They are a delight.
We tarried in the church, admiring the light and colour and the architectural delights. "Bright is the noble work," indeed.