Friday, July 17, 2009

Basilique St. Denis

Twenty minutes north of Paris is what appears from the exterior to be an unassuming church; but open any book about Charlemagne (a.k.a. Charles the Great, a.k.a. Carolus Magnus) and you will learn that the Abbey and Monastary of St. Denis played a very important role in his empire, not to mention that it served also as the burial place of most (all but three) of the French monarchy, stretching back to the 7th century (King Dagobert I, 628 AD), and continuing to the 19th century (Louis XVIII, 1824).

The abbey, monastery, and basilica (now cathedral since it is the seat of a bishop since 1966) supposedly stands atop the spot where, in 250 AD, the martyr and everyday funny man Bishop Denis (patron saint of France) finally died after his decapitated body carried his detached head all the way from Montmartre where said decapitation took place. (His Roman executioners first tried to kill him by roasting him, then having him devoured by "beasts," and then baking him. Here is another interesting fact: St. Denis is called upon by the faithful for amelioration of headaches and dog bites!) The small buildings on this spot gave way to bigger ones, finally becoming an abbey in the 7th century founded by King Dagobert I. The basilica was added to and changed throughout the centuries, most notably by a sweet abbot named Sugar, who renovated much of the building in the 12th century.

At the entrance we see that Jeanne d'Arc, another patron saint of France, blessed her weapons here on September 13, 1492.

Here is something neat. Pick up the encyclopedia nearest to you. (Jordan, you might need to dig around the pile of clothes on your bedroom floor to find that one you received when you were 6 years old.) Now look up "flying buttresses" in the "buttress" section, and you will learn that the Basilica of St. Denis was the first place such innovative technology was tried. This transformed the previous dark confines of gothic buildings into open spaces of light. Because of this, St. Denis was marveled for the amount of light it let in, and was nicknamed the "lantern."

I (Bobby) have finished reading my first biography about Charlemagne (Charlemagne: Father of a Continent), which gives an excellent glimpse of the years 760 - 820 in Europe. Many times the book mentioned St. Denis. For instance, this is where Charles buried his mother Bertha and father King Pepin. Above you see the cadaver tombs of Bertha of the Big Foot (no kidding), and next to her is King Pepin the Short. These tombs were ordered built by King Louis IX (Saint Louis) in the 13th century, into which the bones of the kings and queens were moved.

Here we see in the distance the cadaver tomb of Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne. Next to him is Clovis II, the youngest son of King Dagobert I.

Many of these mortuary monuments are exquisitely crafted. During the French Revolution in the late 18th century, the tombs were emptied, and all the bones deposited into a common grave outside. Luckily, the externals of these tombs were kept intact because they were recognized as art works. I had no recollection of who these two people were supposed to be, and then I discovered allows one to browse by grave location, grave occupant's claim to fame, and even date of death. I used it to learn that these two are King Charles V of France, and his wife Joanna of Bourbon. (Her heart and entrails were buried elsehwere.)

Many of the funerary monuments are very lifelike. Here we see the feet of Francis I (left) and his second cousin and wife Claude de France (right). Two of her "laidies in waiting" were the famous Boleyn girls.

Here is a depiction of war below the feet of Francis I, executed with expert Italian craftsmanship.

Here is the tomb of King Dagobert I, who was the first to be buried here. You see him at the bottom on his side looking to the center of the church, underneath which St. Denis was buried.

In this giant urn is kept the heart of someone we cannot remember. In those old days of dealing with dead bodies, slow transportation, rotting heat, etc., it was common to remove the heart, entrails, and brains.

And in this glass vessel for all to see is the naked (and shriveled) heart of young Louis XVII, son of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The 8-year-old became king after the guillotteening of his father (who did not pick up his head and walk). The boy was imprisoned for five years, during which he was abused, and finally died from tuberculosis. A doctor who performed the autopsy smuggled the boy's heart out --- which in those days was normal for royal hearts. The heart was hidden and only recently discovered, to be reinterred in St. Denis in 2004.

Below the Basilica are more remains and tombs. In the center are the most recent tombs, including those of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, as well as Louis XVIII, the last king to be buried at St. Denis.

During the French Revolution, the remains of all the royal bodies entombed at St. Denis were thoroughly emptied and put into a common pit just outside. At a later time, all the bones were collected and deposited in this room. On the walls outside we see the names belonging to the bones, and the years of their death.

Of course, it behooves one to see the relics of St. Denis upon one's visit. In the sanctuary of the cathedral is a large ornate display case of various holy bones from St. Denis and two of his assistant martyrs. I am happy to report that upon my visit to St. Denis, I have neither been afflicted by headaches nor dog bites.

No comments:

Post a Comment