Confronting Mortality at St. Denis

I have seen medieval cadaver tombs — those bunk bed tombs with knight on top and his skeleton on the lower bunk — but they are stylized, almost cartoon like.  The cadaver tombs of St. Denis are much more powerful intimations of mortality.  We are all going to die.  Even the mighty are brought to this.  And when you visit St. Denis, you know it.  Here is Louis XII and his wife Anne de Bretagne, ornately wigged and robed, in prayer atop their monument. But glance down and we see Louis in all his mortality, naked, without his  wig,  humbled. There is nothing royal or noble or majestic about his feet;  he is just clay like the rest of us. St. Denis is overlooked by most tourists.  Both times when we have visited, there have been no more than a dozen other visitors. It’s easy to get there;  you take the Metro #13 to the Basilica St. Denis stop at the edge of Paris.  The exit is in a small shopping center and the church is a block or so away around the corner and next to the Hotel de Ville of the commune of St. Denis.It is the most interesting church in Paris.   It is also the first Gothic church in history.  Here the Kings of France were interred until the revolution when their tombs were broken open and their remains tossed into a  pit.  When Henry IV, a beloved monarch, was pulled from his tomb and  found to be well preserved and recognizable, his remains were displayed and viewed for several days — but even he ended up eventually tossed into the quicklime.  Luckily architect Alexandre Lenoir had the foresight to claim the tombs as an artistic treasure rather than allowing them to be broken up and dumped in the river.   The heads of Biblical kings on the face of Notre Dame, mistaken for French kings, were not so lucky. During the time of Napoleon the remains were unearthed and re-interred in the crypt in a common grave. The names of the Kings, Queens and Princes are engraved on the black markers at the entrance of this common crypt. Much of the art and gold work at the Cathedral was stolen or melted down but the beauty of the basilica  and many of the magnificent tombs remain.The church was founded by Dagobert I in the 7th century at the burial site of St. Denis.  It functioned as a pilgrimage site and a Benedictine monastery.  Dagobert’s tomb was preserved and can be seen near the altar.

The church was expanded in the 12th century by Abbot Suger who had the dramatic portal built.  It is surmounted by a last judgment.

The door is bordered by a calendar showing the seasons of the year.

Above this entrance, Abbot Suger installed a rose window.  While common in Italy at the time, it was the first example in France and became the norm in later Gothic churches like Chartres and Notre Dame de Paris.  St. Denis is the patron saint of Paris who was martyred by the Romans at Montmartre in about 250 AD. He picked up his own head and walked the many miles to his current resting place, the spot where the church and later cathedral of St. Denis now stands. This story seemed very familiar when I first read it; I seemed to recall that San Miniato had done pretty much the same thing at the same time in Florence.  And wasn’t that a headless saint in Senlis? We think this may be Justus of Beauvais  a Christian child executed near Senlis who continued to preach while holding his head. It turns out that history records over a hundred saints rumored to  have done this precise thing including a trio of headless saints in Zurich.

St. Denis is depicted holding his head in his hands in many spots around Paris including the facade of Notre Dame.  Here is a statue of him in a small playground and park in Montmartre where his journey to his final resting place began.

Although much was lost during the revolution, there are still many noteworthy features like these choir stalls.

The choir stalls include both carved tableau such as these

and inlaid scenes like these.But most interesting are the tombs, particularly  the marble Italianate cadaver tombs.  In addition to the tomb of Louis XII and Anne of Bretagne at the head of this piece there are two others of these masterpieces.  Catherine de Medici had one designed for herself and King Henry II.  There is a bronze sculpture of the royal pair in their finery atop the tomb.And their very dead looking selves are faithfully rendered below.Catherine was so disturbed by this vision of her future that she actually commissioned a second set of tomb figures that show her and her husband the King laid out in the traditional sedate and clothed pose.

The third cadaver tomb is of  Francis I and his first wife Claude.  Here is a close-up of Claude in repose.Behind this tomb is a more traditional tomb showing the deceased laid out  in the robes of their station.   This quadruple tomb is for the  Duc d’Orleans Charles and his wife and parents.  Charles was the father of Louis the XII who became King of France when the former King produced no heirs.  Louis XII is the king shown on the cadaver tomb at the beginning of this post.Notice the small animals at the feet of each of the dead.  It is common for tombs of this sort to show a loyal dog, or animals like ermine or lions signifying rank at the foot of the deceased.  This small tomb is for Jean I, the posthumous heir of King Louis X who was born and ‘reigned’ for 4 days in 1316 before his death. Note the royal lion at his feet.  Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were not buried at St. Denis after their execution, but what was left of their remains were moved there when Napoleon restored St. Denis as the burial place of Kings of France.  The breast of the statue of Marie Antoinette has been rubbed shiny by countless visitors.

Their sons, the Dauphin Louis-Joseph who died at age 8, and the second son, the titular Louis XVII who died after the revolution, are interred in the crypt.  This is the monument containing the heart of Louis XVII.

Before you visit, you might want to bone up on French history.  Here are the tombs of Charles Martel, Louis XIV, Clovis,  Pippin — assorted Merovingians and Capetians — all those rulers we read about in high school or the da Vinci Code.   And here is a chance to come face to face or foot to foot with what awaits us all.   For information about a visit here is a UK website in English about the Basilica.

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16 Responses to Confronting Mortality at St. Denis

  1. Raegan says:

    Janet, fantastic pics and commentary, looking forward to visiting St Denis in 2012.

  2. Lloyd says:

    Powerful stuff – you have sold me. Will be there this May – DV!

  3. Janet says:

    It is a powerful experience and different from any other church in Paris. Hope you love it as much as we do.

  4. Bmgjrg says:

    Wow Janet what powerful pictures. Can’t wait to visit on a Sunday in May. Many thanks.

  5. Gail says:

    Janet, thanks so much for sharing this and your help on trip advisor. Your documentary is incredible.

  6. Lynn says:

    Thanks to your wonderful photos and commentary, St Denis is on my To Do list for my next visit!

  7. Faith says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Janet! Your writing is prolific and the pictures are exquisite. I am bringing a small group of students to Paris next month and will certainly include St. Denis in our visit!

  8. I’m going to Paris this fall and St Denis because of your pictures and explanations.

    • Janet says:

      Hope you enjoy it as much as we did. Happy Travels.

      • Jerry and Stelly Hofelt says:

        Thank you for putting this information about St. Denis. We just got back to Dallas last week but we were in Paris a month. St. Denis was one of the most beautiful churches we saw, plus we got down to the crypt. It was fantastic! And we never would have known it existed if it wasn’t for you writing about it and a great guy we met outside the church who filled us in on all the things that were in the crypt. Seems he had been there 55 years ago when he was just a lad and was very nostalgic about being there again. Had no idea that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were buried there.

  9. Janet says:

    Not entirely clear who is now buried there as the bodies were trashed during the revolution and many thrown into the Seine and others dumped into a pit — they tried to collect what they could and put it in a common crypt at St Denis. But some fine soul saved the tombs as ‘art’ and so now we have them. Glad you got to see it.

  10. Rose says:

    Thank you so much! Your pictures and commentary are wonderful!

  11. Clémence B says:

    What an amazing article Janet! Very interesting!
    Can you please contact me at my email address that you can find in the information box?
    Thank you very much!

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