Basilica of Saint-Denis

The Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis is one of the world’s best-surviving examples of French Gothic architecture, and it’s located approximately five miles north of core Paris landmarks like the Louvre, Centre Pompidou, and Sainte-Chapelle. The present-day Basilica has stood on this spot since the twelfth century, and it’s where 13 centuries of French rulers are buried in a host of sculptural tombs amid beautiful stained-glass windows.

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History of the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis

Saint Denis was a bishop of Paris (which at that time, under Roman rule, was known as Lutetia) martyred for his religious beliefs in the middle of the third century. Denis was decapitated for his faith, and the legend has it he walked four miles after the act reciting prayers and carrying his own head in his hands before stopping at the holy place he wished to be buried. This site is where the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis stands today, for it was built on the remains of several other churches which had stood for centuries on the site of the tomb of Saint Denis.

The Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis as we know it was built during the twelfth century under the direction of Abbot Suger, an important religious official and personal advisor to Kings Louis VI and Louis VII. The Basilica’s design was revolutionary for its time, and is said to have been an inspiration for Notre-Dame. The vaulted ceiling of the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis is almost 100 feet tall, and its main chapel area is over 350 feet long. The site was completed and dedicated in the summer of 1144, making it one of the oldest examples of what we call Gothic architecture still in existence.

Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis Highlights

The Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis is most famous for being the final resting place of the vast majority of French monarchs: it’s believed that all but four of the kings that ruled France between the years 843 and 1870 are buried here, as well as several other earlier rulers like Clovis I and Childebert I. In all, it is said that some 43 kings, 32 queens, and dozens of princes and princesses are interred at Saint-Denis. The recumbent burial sculptures that mark the graves of these royals are a sight to behold.

Of particular note among the Basilica’s many ornate tombs are those of Henry II and Catherine de Medici. Created by the sculptor Germain Pilon between 1560 and 1572, this major work features bronze statues of the king and queen, four bronze statues depicting the virtues of Strength, Justice, Temperance, and Prudence, and a marble temple inside of which are two more statues of Henry II and Catherine de Medici.

Ever since the Basilica was built in the twelfth century, it has had a reputation for possessing some of the country’s finest stained-glass windows. Almost all of the original stained-glass work is long gone, but what’s here today is still quite beautiful. Dating to the nineteenth century, the stained-glass windows of the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis contain portraits of French kings and queens, and depict a variety of Bible stories, papal pilgrimages, and the story of Saint Denis himself.

More to See and Do at the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis

The Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis occupies an important place in French history. Other notable things to see and do when visiting this storied attraction are described below.

•When it comes to art, the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis is perhaps best known for its stained-glass windows. However, a significant number of fascinating sculptures are located throughout the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis, too. In addition to the many stone tomb statues, of course, prominent historic sculptures of note here include column statues that date to the twelfth century, bas-relief battle scenes from the sixteenth century, and the large funerary monument to King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette by Edme Gaulle and Pierre Petitot that was completed in 1830.

•Keep an eye out for the Basilica’s exquisite, hand-carved wooden choir stalls. The provenance of these lovely chairs can be traced back to the sixteenth century. They were moved to Saint-Denis in the first decade of the nineteenth century by Napoleon.

•There is documentation of an organ at the Basilica as early as 1520, but it’s believed this particular instrument was destroyed during the French Revolution. The organ you’ll see here today was installed in 1843 by the prestigious organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.

•For a small additional fee, visitors may purchase an audio guide that provides color and context about the sights and sounds of this historic landmark. Free guided tours of the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis run Monday through Saturday at 11:00am and 3:00pm, and on Sundays at 12:30pm and 3:00pm. There are no reservations, and tours depart promptly from the attraction’s reception desk.

•The Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis routinely hosts music recitals, choir concerts, educational workshops, garden tours, and more. For information on the type of special events that might be scheduled to take place when you’re planning to visit, check out the official website in advance of your trip.

Why the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis Should Be on Your Must-See List

Anyone with an interest in French history, Gothic architecture, or European royal lineages will want to place the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis on their Paris-area itinerary. While the Basilica is situated slightly outside of the city’s core, it’s still a relatively easy destination to reach, just five miles north of Basilica of Sacré-Cœur de Montmartre and Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie.