The Basilica of St. Denis is the most historically and religiously important church in Paris, though far from the most famous, thanks to Notre Dame. Originally part of an abbey complex, the basilica later became the burial site of St. Denis, the first bishop of Paris. Perhaps more importantly, it would also become the official burial site of most French royalty. The oldest monarch to be buried there is Clovis I, an early king of the Merovingian dynasty, and who is considered the first true Catholic king in Europe. Architecturally, the basilica is noteworthy as being one of the first, if not the first, Gothic church in Europe.
Christianity arrived in Paris sometime around the early 3rd century. Denis, the city’s first bishop, was martyred by beheading. However, the city became much more amenable to Christians in the next few centuries, notably following the arrival of the Franks in Gaul. In the latter half of the 5th century, the Franks, a powerful Germanic tribe, conquered northern France. Compared to previous Germanic invasions, this conquest was apparently relatively benign. Clovis, the leader of the Franks, was apparently intent on uniting most of the Germanic tribes, conquering Western Europe, and establishing some sense of peace and stability in the long-suffering region.
To this end, Clovis embraced Christianity as part of his efforts to secure legitimacy. Specifically, he converted to Catholicism, the first major monarch in Europe to do so. His rejection of Arian Christianity, which was rampant among the other German tribes at the time, was embraced by Catholic leaders in Rome. The mutual recognition of Clovis’ dynasty, the Merovingians, in France and the religious authority of the Papacy set the stage for the final downfall of Arianism. It also established the Church as the arbiter of Europe’s monarchs or the next thousand years.
Clovis’ kingdom represented the first return to normalcy in Western Europe for the first time in the better part of a century. Although not a saint, Clovis was arguably the most important Christian ruler in Europe between Constantine and Charlemagne. After his death, he was buried in the Abbey of St. Genevieve in Paris. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the abbey was massively renovated, and Clovis’ remains were relocated to the Basilica of St. Denis.
There has been a church on the site of the current basilica since the 7th century. The current building largely dates from the early 12th century. The basilica had already been used since its inception as a popular site for the burial of French kings. After its reconstruction, virtually every monarch was buried there, and many of the earlier kings were reinterred there, including Clovis. During the French Revolution, all of the bodies were removed, dumped in a pit, and desecrated. Later, those parts that survived were reinterred in a common ossuary.
The Basilica of St. Denis is rarely part of the typical Parisian tourist’s itinerary, making it ideal for a quiet, contemplative visit. The current basilica was essentially completed in 1140, with renovations as late as the 19th century. Many architectural historians consider this cathedral as the first truly Gothic church, the prototype for many such churches that would be constructed in Western Europe in the later Middle Ages. Definitive exeterior elements include the single bell tower on the right side of the façade and the massive, stained-glass rose window which would later be adopted in cathedrals all over France.
The church interior boasts classic Gothic features, but it is not to gawk at these which draws pilgrims to the site; it is the impressive number of stunning tombs and reliquaries which are scattered around the basilica. Although now mostly empty, these sepulchers once contained the bodies of nearly a hundred French monarchs and aristocrats. A flattering but unlikely effigy lies upon the sarcophagus of Clovis I. Among the other tombs here are those of saints Denis and Louis IX.
The Basilica of St. Denis is located in the Parisian suburb of Saint Denis, approximately five miles north of the city center. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.parisinfo.com (official tourism website of Paris)
Clovis, along with many other early French monarchs, was buried first at the 6th century church of the Abbey of St. Genevieve. Parts of this early structure survive today, incorporated into the Pantheon, home to the tombs of many of France’s most prominent artists, authors and musicians.