Saturday, 30 July 2011


North of central Paris, almost at the end of the No. 13 Metro line, there is a cathedral that rivals the more famous Notre Dame for medieval grandeur. I first read about this church in my Western Civilization class forty years ago. It is almost the first, truly Gothic cathedral, built by the famous Abbot Suger in the 12th century. Unlike Notre Dame, however, it is not crowded with tourists jostling each other to snap photos, making it a delightful Saturday outing even in July.

Once, the church was an adjunct to a great abbey, but the French Revolution swept all of the cloisters away. One of the two towers of the facade crashed down in the 1800's, giving the building an endearing, lopsided look. You can see how early it is--there are no flying buttresses like the lacy extensions on Notre Dame that stretch out from the exterior walls like air roots. St. Denis is an altogether heavier building. It does not, like Chartes, appear ready to leap into the sky. Neither is it a dense, earthbound Romanesque church, squatting possessively on its foundations. It is visionary, but without all the details having been worked out yet.

Because it takes so long to complete a true cathedral--more than a hundred years--you can see the 13th century innovations superimposed on the the basic design. If you go into the crypt, you can even see the few remains of the Carolingean church, dating to before Charlemagne in the 7th century and at the very bottom, the 4th century Roman basement where the remains of St. Denis and two other saints once rested. Medieval pilgrims used to walk a circuit around the tombs, sometimes on their knees. Their pennies enriched the abbey and allowed Abbot Suger to build his dream.

Inside, the basilica has become a repository for the tombs and cenotaphs of French royalty, going back to Dagobert, a Dark Ages, Merogovingian monarch. As royal lineages died out and Capets followed Valois--sometimes militarily--they brought or created their predecessors' funeral monuments to St. Denis. It was a way of proclaiming that the new regime was the legitimate successor of the old. It is roughly similar to modern American political parties laying claim to being the "true" inheritors of the principles of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or the ancient Roman kings claiming descent from the hero, Aneas. It makes for odd juxtapositions, like the thoroughly High Medieval sculpture of Clovis and Charles Martel, who lived 300 hundred years earlier and certainly never wore the elaborate mail and jointed armor their images depict.

It doesn't stop at the Middle Ages. Louis XVIII, almost the last, faint gasp of the Bourbons, had two, life-sized statues of his brother and sister-in-law, the doomed Louis XVI and his foolish wife, Marie Antoinette, placed in the cathedral in very pious postures. He was underlining his descent from the Ancienne regime, although it did him little good. His brother, Charles, succeeded him for a few years, but monarchy was dying in France.

It was fascinating to roam among the various monuments, some elaborate, some humble, and realize that Sainte-Denis is France's lumber room of rulers, a kind of funeral attic. The centuries are jumbled together; glorious medieval stained glass next to garish, 19th century "restored" windows. Renaissance doublets mix with Medieval curt hose. It's all a glorious confusion and gives history a very human face.

And on top of all of that, there is that gorgeous light, pouring into the cathedral from the windows.

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