The Basilica of Saint Denis and the Royal Necropolis: Exploring the First Gothic Cathedral in Depth

If you’re a fan of Gothic architecture, then the Basilica of Saint Denis should be at the top of your list of places to visit in Paris. It’s the first Gothic cathedral ever constructed, and it has many historical ties to the French royalty. Find out more below!

basilica of saint denis

About the Gothic Basilica of Saint Denis – History and Meaning

The Basilica of Saint Denis is located in the commune of Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris. It was built by Abbot Suger on the grave of Saint Denis, a 3rd-century martyr and bishop of France. The oldest parts of the abbey church date back to the 12th century, and its famous choir – completed in 1144 – is the first structure in history that employed all elements of the Gothic style.

Over the centuries, the basilica was rebuilt several times and has undergone many changes. The most notable change occurred in the 13th century, when the Nave was reconstructed in the Rayonnant Gothic style. Around that time, the church became the French ‘royal necropolis’ – the burial place of the kings of France, starting from King Dagobert.

The basilica and its royal tombs were badly damaged during the French Revolution. Most of the medieval monastic buildings were demolished in 1792, and the liturgical furniture was melted down for scrap metal. The basilica was turned into a warehouse for the storage of food and wine. It wasn’t until 1806 that Napoleon Bonaparte ordered its restoration.

The Cathédrale de Saint-Denis is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Paris. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Gothic architecture, or if you want to see the final resting place of some of France’s most famous kings and queens, then be sure to add the Basilica of Saint-Denis to your itinerary.

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Inside the Saint-Denis Basilica – What to See

There are three main areas to explore inside the Basilica of Saint Denis: the Nave and choir, the disambulatory and chapels, and the Crypt. Below, you’ll find brief descriptions of each part.

The Nave and Choir

The Nave is the basilica’s main hall, and it’s where you’ll find the famous rose window – a 13th-century stained glass window that depicts the Last Judgement. It’s also decorated with 19th-century stained-glass windows depicting the kings and queens of France.

The aisles surrounding the choir and Nave contain the tombs of several French kings and queens, including Clovis I of Charles Martel, Constance of Castille, Pepin the Short, and Robert the Pious.

The Chapels

There are five radiating chapels, connected by an ambulatory, in the basilica. The 12th-century axial chapel of the Virgin is the oldest, and all the chapels share a system of vaulted roofs. The walls between the chapels are masked with columns and tracery to make them less visible.

The Crypt and Royal Necropolis

The Crypt is located beneath the Nave, and it’s the final resting place of many of the basilica’s former abbots and bishops. The royal tombs are also located here, although the bodies of most of the kings and queens were destroyed during the French Revolution. In 1817, the restored Bourbons collected the remaining bones into one ossuary in the crypt.

The Collection of Funerary Sculpture

The basilica is home to a collection of over 70 funeral sculptures, dating from the 12th to the 18th centuries. The collection includes effigies, tomb slabs, and cenotaphs of French kings and queens, as well as Pope Urban II.

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Practical Information for Visiting the Basilique de Saint-Denis

The Basilica of Saint Denis is open to the public every day, but the opening hours vary depending on the season. Tickets are €9.50 for adults, but admission is free for children under 18 (with an adult), and people with disabilities among others.

If you’re interested in exploring the basilica in depth, then be sure to download the guide booklet. It’s available in 12 languages, including English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Russian.

The basilica is located in the town of Saint-Denis, about a 30-minute drive from central Paris. If you’re taking public transportation, then you can take the metro (line 13) to the Saint-Denis Porte de Paris stop. Tramways can also take you to the Marché de Saint-Denis stop.

Places to Visit Around the Basilica of Saint-Denis

After you’ve explored the basilica, be sure to check out some other attractions in Saint-Denis. They’ll easily fill your day trip itinerary, and you won’t be bored for a minute!

Parc de la Légion d’Honneur

This small park is located just behind the basilica, and it’s a great place to take a break from sightseeing. It’s also home to the annual Tulip Festival, which takes place every spring.

Musée d’Art et d’Histoire Paul Eluard (Saint-Denis)

This museum is located in the former abbey of Saint-Denis, and it’s dedicated to the history of art and culture in the town. It has a wide range of exhibitions, including temporary ones.

Théâtre Gérard Philipe

This theater is located in the center of Saint-Denis, and it’s named after the famous French actor who was born in the town. It offers a variety of performances throughout the year, including dance, music, and theater.

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Mairie de Saint-Denis

This is the town hall of Saint-Denis, and it’s located in the former abbey’s cloister. It has a beautiful Gothic façade, and it’s worth a quick visit if you’re interested in architecture.

Discover the Royal Necropolis for Yourself – and More!

The Basilica of Saint Denis is a must-visit for anyone interested in Romanesque and Gothic architecture or the history of the French monarchy. But it’s also worth exploring for its own sake – it’s truly a unique and fascinating place. So, add it to your list of places to see in Paris, and don’t forget to visit the other attractions in Saint-Denis while you’re there!

Have you ever been to the basilica? What did you think of it? Let us know in the comments below.

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