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Saint Denis Cathedral

Updated on May 11, 2014

Cathedral of Saint-Denis

Saint Denis Catedhral is fine example of Gothic architecture, located in southern part of Paris, France. With its rich history and being accessible with a metro, it's definitely one of the most neglected attractions in Paris. Tourist guides often skip it.

If you are looking for something special to add on your itinerary and want to experience the energy of this historical place, the Cathedral of Saint-Denis may be the one.

According to the legend Saint Denis, first bishop of Paris, was tortured and decapitated by a sword in third century on the top of the hill Montmartre. But he didn't die immediately. With his head in his hands he walked preaching for more than five miles until he reached the location of today's Basilica, where he felt down.

(all used images are in public domain)

Short history

A shrine for his and his companions' remains was built immediately, Abbey was founded in 7th century by Franks' king Dagobert.

In 12th century the Abbot Suger began reconstruction which eventually led to magnificent basilica which became royal necropolis and one of finest examples of modern style in architecture. With constant addition which eventually led to complex of buildings, works lasted for centuries. Many architects changed, but the main idea was always the same: more

space, light and air.

The Abbey of Saint Denis is traditional place of burial for French kings and queens, just like Westminster Abbey in London, England, is for English. Here are buried all but three French monarch after 10 century. Each one of them were initially in his or her own tomb, but during French Revolution tombs were desecrated (by order of authorities) and remains of monarch thrown into mass graves.

However thanks to archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir majority of monuments were saved because he announced them as cultural monuments, so the revolution didn't destroy everything.

France or England

Rivalry between England and France was not only political and geographical, it was and still is apparent in other areas like sport and culture. Architecture is no exception and competitiveness between Westminster and St. Denis is greatly explained in this educating yet amusing read.

A Tale of Two Monasteries: Westminster and Saint-Denis in the Thirteenth Century
A Tale of Two Monasteries: Westminster and Saint-Denis in the Thirteenth Century

Learn more about the changes in art and politics with beautifully narrated text.


Elements of Gothic architecture

Cathedral of Saint-Denis is considered as the first major structure built in the Gothic style. Most prominent feature is height, which should be way about the surrounding buildings to instantly infuse awe in visitor. But this was actually a side effect. The main reason was entirely practical. The Abbey simply wasn't spacious enough to accept so many pilgrims who came to pay tribute to the late saint.

Main problem of medieval buildings was their weight. Stones were heavy and every large, airy structure presented a risk of collapsing. New approaches, mainly aiming to spread the weight, lighter and much higher constructions made new

buildings possible. The result was impressive. Extremely tall buildings virtually reaching the sky and for many centuries highest buildings in Europe were perfect expression of growing powers of centralized monarchies like French.

With rib vaults on pointed arches, vaulted ceiling, flying buttresses, clustered columns, and many incorporated decorative elements as rose window, marbled statues, stained glass, etc. Saint Denis Cathedral has all the major elements of Gothic architecture which of course didn't exist as a term in times of building.

Basilica of Saint-Denis: short virtual tour

The history of Cathedral of Saint Denis is not only interesting because of this particular building, it gives as a chance to better understand how architecture was developing in Europe through centuries. One of most important facts is influence of Abbot Suger on French monarchs which made this large project possible.

Follow doctors Beth Harris and Steven Zucker on this amazing journey through history.

Just like Louvre, Basilica of Saint Denis is open to the public, but it is rarely crowded. Tourists can enjoy in guided tours or use audio guides in English, French, Italian and Spanish language. Entrance fee is from 4,50 to 7,50 Euros.

When in Paris ...

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    • mihgasper profile image

      Miha Gasper 3 years ago from Ljubljana, Slovenia, EU

      @Charito1962: It's a country with a lot to offer!

    • Charito1962 profile image

      Charito Maranan-Montecillo 3 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      I would love to visit France someday and see this cathedral and other architectural wonders!