Paris, France. In the olden days, if you were born a king or a queen, you lived a very good life, you died and they gave you a big send-off and a proper burial. And then you rested in peace. In France, that likely took place in the Basilica of Saint Denis. He was a Christian martyr, beheaded, yet he supposedly walked around for a while till he dropped, ostensibly at the site of the church we see today.
The current Basilica of Saint-Denis is a large medieval abbey church of singular importance historically and architecturally, as its choir, completed in 1144, shows the first use of all of the elements of Gothic architecture.
The site originated as a Gallo-Roman cemetery in late Roman times. The archaeological remains still lie beneath the cathedral; the people buried there seem to have had a faith that was a mix of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs and practices.
Around 475 St. Genevieve purchased some land and built a church there. It grew in size and importance. St. Denis became a place of pilgrimage and the burial place of French kings, with nearly every king from the 10th to the 18th centuries being buried there, as well as many from previous centuries.
The basilica’s 13th-century nave is the prototype for the Gothic style that provided an architectural model for many medieval cathedrals and abbeys of northern France, Germany and England.
Now, about the graves of the kings and queens who were buried here. Yes, this was to be their last resting place, for everyone from Clovis I in 511 even up to Louis XVI, whose reign caused a bit of an upset to the church of St. Denis.
The church and its contents were an irresistible red flag of a despised royal system for the French Revolutionaries, and in 1792, it, along with its tombs, was completely ransacked. So much for resting in piece. Bones were scattered to the winds and royal effigies were heavily damaged, along with much of the church.
Times and politics change and the next century saw a restoration of the monarchy along with memories of the royal past. The church was reconsecrated by Napoleon in 1806 and the tomb sculptures returned to Saint-Denis. The church, including the architectural sculpture and stained glass windows (of which very little medieval glass survives) was heavily restored in the mid-nineteenth century by the same architect responsible for the restoration of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame.
The present location of the tomb effigies today does not correspond to their medieval locations, nor do the tombs likely contain the bones they originally held. But they are beautiful and an amazing time capsule of French history. Just admire them for what they must have meant in their day.
There are even places for the last of the Bourbons, including Marie Antoinette. Louis XVI had commissioned a large pair of statues of the royal pair, showcasing their sanctity which is also on display. A monument to their son, Louis XVII, holds the receptacle in which his heart supposedly is kept, after the young boy died in prison at the age of 10. (For the details of French history about that time, you are on your own.)
We then went back to Montmartre for lunch and another view of Saint-George de Montmartre, the Art Nouveau church that is so intriguing.
All in all, a deep dive into the France of the past.
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