Remembering Paris…Remembering Basilique Saint-Denis

What happens when one half of the *Pear* goes to work and the other gets bored with no history books around? (they are in transport somewhere between Maine and Texas)  They (moi) start dreaming about, none other than *Paris* like that’s a shocker…then dreaming turns into finding something constructive to do…ah..read about French history, add to your knowledge base, just have to find a book.  Great idea!  So to get learning and  to get even more acquainted with Rockland, the Chef and I ventured to the public library.  It’s where I found this book by Ina Caro, Paris to the Past: Traveling Through French History By Train.  

I actually discovered the book back in April before heading to Paris, but decided not to buy it.  Thought I would save it for a later date…that date happened to be Thursday.  I seriously didn’t give the title much thought until I read the first few chapters and thought…dear God!!! The Chef and I did exactly what Caro writes about in this book.  Every weekend I would drag the exhausted Chef from our drop down bed in our 300 sqft. apartment on the Left Bank to one of the many train stations in Paris.  From there we would board a train bound for the past…a lesson in French history.  Each time he’d fall asleep on the train and I’d get giddy with the anticipation of what I was about to experience.  From the Loire Valley to the Pas-de-Calais region, we did it!  The Chef loved it and he knows it!

Loire Valley…

I have to say though, Caro’s version is really interesting and packed full of facts I’m thrilled to have discovered, however the Chef and I have some wonderful adventures that are definitely book worthy.  Many would agree we have Caro’s version of Versailles beat hands down.  It’s a shame she wasn’t able to experience the Versailles we know…from behind the state apartments and into a fairytale.

Her version leaves her waiting in lines that snake clear to the car park and being part of the revolting herd in Hall of Mirrors.  If only she knew what we do…how to get the keys!

the only way to see Versailles…going beyond the locked doors

However, truth be told, Caro has done her homework and had many more years of chasing French history than I.  Which leads to the point of this blog post.  Her first train ride led her to the Basilique Saint-Denis, the royal medieval abbey church in the not so pleasant suburb north of Paris called Saint Denis. Before reading the book, the only meaning Saint Denis held for me was that it contained the final remains and tombs of those who’s history I chase all over France…the Kings and Queens.  It was also a part of Paris I would NEVER venture to alone or at night, too scary!

My dearest Marie Antoinette, for whom I owe my interest in history to, and all that is left of her is there (or so we all hope). All but three monarchs from the 10th century to 1789 lie in a jumbled mess within the ossuary. I say “jumbled” because in October of 1793 the not so history conscious revolutionaries running France decided to completely pillage and desecrate Saint Denis and its tombs.   Every royal was violently forced from their peaceful everlasting rest and thrown into a pit of quicklime.  The very day and down to the exact hour Marie Antoinette was beheaded (Oct 16, 1793) happened to also coincide with the day her grandfather King, Louis XV, was exhumed from his 20+ year rest and thrown into the pit with the rest of his family!  My oh my!  After the restoration of the monarchy, the remains that were discovered in the quicklime pit, made their way back into the basilique and placed within the ossuary behind a marble plate.

back of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI statues

Never understood why they aren’t portrayed in the clothing of their period.  Insult, maybe?

Heart of the 10 year old Louis XVII, Louis-Charles, Dauphin of France
Another tragedy of the revolution.

Louis XII and Ann of Brittany tomb

Henry II and Catherine de Médicis

Catherine de Médicis 13 April 1519 – 5 January 1589

King Henry II 31 March 1519 – 10 July 1559

Francis I and Claude of France…check out their feet.  They look so real.

Francis I and Claude of France… Renaissance comes to France

What I failed to grasp about Saint Denis was the history of the church itself.  It wasn’t that I didn’t care about it, no not at all.  There were just other interests that had a hold of me, that being the “empty” tombs.  When it comes to understanding churches there’s an immense amount of symbolism and architectural elements that could take years of research to know.  I’m sure there are entire graduate degree programs dedicated to the science.  Maybe one day I’ll get there–until now I’ll enjoy books like Caro has written.

After absorbing the chapter Saint-Denis The Monarchy and the Gothic Cathedral, I went back and looked through the photos from our trips in 08′, 10′ and 11.’  Sure enough the Chef had gotten some really great shots of Saint Denis ( we always pay MA and Louis a visit), which gave me an even greater appreciation for the experience.  I was reliving the moment but through new lenses.

What is unique about Saint Denis is that it was the *first* Gothic church in France, *first* church to welcome the jeweled rose window…it really was the *first* church to shine through the dark ages.  All rose windows in France originated with the one at Saint Denis.  They were essentially created to give the King a bedazzled look as he sat in church.  To bath him a glorious technicolor of light–for he was the connection to God.  The only surviving stained glass window at Saint Denis is the one called the Tree of Jesse.  Unfortunately, the Chef didn’t see it, so we didn’t get a photo.  Next time though…

Like any creation of beauty in the 12th century (1144 to be exact) Saint Denis was open to attack, thus needing arrow slits in the walls for protection.  The crenelated crowns which adorn the top mimic that of a King’s fortified castle.  Saint Denis was said to have been outfitted with every jeweled stone imaginable.  The floors even sparkled!  Hence the need for arrow slits.  Again, we have the revolutionaries to thank for not being able to witness this brilliant display of Gothic art.

It’s actually missing the other tower

To bad this little guy couldn’t have come to life and protected the place during the revolution! Isn’t that what they were supposed to do? Guard the church?

One may ask..who was this man that became a saint and why?  Apparently, there were 3 Denises who’s histories all became intertwined through the abbey’s archives (the abbey had been there since the 600s.)  #1 Denis was the Athenian who witnessed the eclipse when Christ died.  #2 Denis (my favorite) was a Paris bishop who was decapitated in 250 at Montmartre and allegedly walked with his head in his hand  to be buried were the abbey was built.  What a guy! #3 Denis was just some Syrian philosopher who had the same name as #1 Denis.  He also liked to add to his writings, thus leaving those who succeeded him to believe he was the #1 Denis who witnessed the elcipse at the death of Christ.  Somehow in the 9th century his writings were deposited in the abbey by way of Charlemagne’s son, which were found by the Abbot Suger.  Mix that all together and you get a grand church built in the honor of Saint Denis.  Personally, I like the headless Denis…crazy story, would make a great summer blockbuster movie.

Here’s a scene from the walls at the Pantheon showing that day.

#2 Denis walked from here to the abbey…5 miles…head in his hand.

I’d like to thank Ms. Caro and the Chef (he insisted I do more France/Paris blogs with all our millions of photos) for inspiring me to snap out of my boredom and take pleasure in appreciating the moments we were fortunate enough to have made in country that captivates us to the core.  Saint Denis means more to me today than it did yesterday and for that I’m grateful…

Source: Ina Caro, Paris to the Past: Traveling Through French History By Train.  

4 thoughts on “Remembering Paris…Remembering Basilique Saint-Denis

    • yeah, there’s a lot there for sure—well, mostly just tombs–bones were scattered during revolution! I’ll have to tell you the story about what happened when the Revolutionaries opened Henry IV, Louis XIV and Louis XV’s tombs.

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