Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Basilica of St. Denis
Last weekend, we made the long ride on line 13 north of town to the Basilica of St. Denis, named for the saint who was bishop of Paris around the year 250. Beheaded on what is today Montmartre, he apparently picked up his head (which continued to preach the gospel) and kept walking for five miles, collapsing finally on the spot of the current cathedral. But whether you buy into this story or not, the true significance of the church in more recent history has been its role as burial site for virtually every French king since Dagobert in the 7th century. During the French revolution, the church was heavily vandalized and the remains of the monarchy thrown into a mass grave. Later, the bones were reinterred in an ossuary in the crypt; today cenotaphs (funereal monuments without remains) are placed throughout the church.
St. Denis is also one of the first Gothic cathedrals, designed by Suger, its abbot during the 12th century. It's not particularly impressive from the outside, mostly because it's crammed into the concrete jungle that is modern day St. Denis. But inside, it's as peaceful and impressive in its soaring arches and stained glass as the best of them.
These statues depict François I, the great Renaissance king, with his wife Claude and several of their children at prayer. Claude did her duty as queen, bearing seven children, before dying exhausted at the age of 24. Although she was the eldest child of King Louis XII, she couldn't inherit the title. Even so she was plenty rich. Roger Wieck, an expert on medieval and Renaissance manuscripts at the Morgan Library in New York, commented in The New Yorker last year that she was a good catch despite the fact that "she was short, fat, lame, slightly hunchbacked, and cross-eyed." The sculptor fortunately spared us those details.
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, shown here, were not buried at St. Denis. After their executions, their bones were thrown into a mass grave, later exhumed and interred at the Chapelle Expiatoire in Paris.
The light in a Gothic cathedral is meant to inspire. You don't have to be a believer to feel connected to something bigger than yourself.