Paris – Dagobert’s Basilica – Saint Denis

BUT for a long time the loiterer, if he be at all attuned to the pitch intended, will have been longing to break away from the leading strings which detain him in such abstract churches as these just described, and to make his way to that dingy suburban town, situated to the north of Paris, in the valley of the Seine, and distant but a few kilometers from the fortifications, whose sole interest is the amazing Gothic church of Saint-Denis.

Though celebrated for several reasons, Saint-Denis owes its chief renown to the royal tombs of which it has become the repository, a truly glorious collection of medieval and renaissance sculptures. From the time of Dagobert (628), who conceived the cathedral, to Louis XVIII, who, after the despoliation of the Revolution restored the chap-ter, Saint-Denis had been the sepulcher of the kings of France. The series of tombs commenced with that of Dagobert (the last great Merovingien, great-great-grandson of Clovis), included eight Carlovingiens, with but few exceptions the kings of the third race, from Hugues Capet to Henri II and his sons (the last of the House of Valois), and the Bourbons down to Louis XVIII.

The violation of these tombs during the Revolution, the transference of most of the important monuments to the shelter of the Petits-Augustins, their restitution to Saint-Denis accompanied by numerous homeless effigies, tombs, and statues torn from destroyed churches, convents, monasteries, and abbeys, placed pale-male in Lenoir’s museum, thence chased out again by the suppression of the museum and the turning over of the convent buildings to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, all this tragic history belongs to a later survey.

At the moment it is the cathedral itself which interests us, this cathedral in which, as we have said, Gothic architecture reached its point of arrival. The church as we see it, for it has passed through many strains of rebuilding, demolition, restoration, is still eloquent of the transition—its right-hand tower is almost pure Romanesque—but its secondary apse and its semi-circular chapels are considered as the first perfected attempt at Gothic, and carry us a step beyond the experiments of Saint-Martin-des-Champs.

The name and fame of the cathedral are derived from the abbey founded by Dagobert on the spot where, according to tradition, Saint-Denis halted his fateful march, from the summit of Montmartre, and was interred.

The epoch of the founder of Christianity in Paris is uncertain; ecclesiastical historians hesitate between the Ist, Ilnd, and even the IVth centuries. His origin is unknown, even, according to the sceptics, mythical. Whether he was Denis Areopagite, converted in Athens by the preaching of Saint Paul, commissioned to announce the doctrine of Christ to the Parisians, or whether he was another person of the same name sent to the Gauls about the middle of the IIIrd century and put to death during the persecution ordered by Decius has not been decided.

His history is written in monuments and popular traditions, and this history asserts and constantly reiterates that the founder and first bishop of the church of Paris was called Denis, that he was assisted in his apostolic work by the priest Rustique, and the deacon Eleuthere, and that all three sealed their accomplished mission with their blood.

Not two centuries ago there was still shown at Notre-Dame-des-Champs, at that time remote from the walls of Paris, a crypt where Saint Denis called together the first of the faithful; at Saint-Benoit a chapel built on the site of an oratory where Saint-Denis had first invoked the name of the Trinity; at Saint-Denis-de-la-Chartre, the prison where Christ came himself to fortify the confessors by administering his body and blood; at Saint-Denis-du-Pas the place where the trio suffered the first tortures; and finally the summit of Montmartre where their heads fell under the sword.

” The holy bishop Denis, and his two companions,” wrote Hilduin, abbot of Saint-Denis in the IXth century, ” suffered their glorious martyrdom within view of the city of the Parisians, upon a hill previously called Mount of Mercury, in honour of a god in particular favour amongst the Gauls, but thereafter known as Mount . of the Martyrs in memory of the saints who died there.”

The origin of the church of Saint-Denis is subject to two interpretations. According to one a pious woman called Catulle, having assisted the three martyrs during their imprisonment, dared to gather up the mutilated remains and buried them in a field belonging to herself, later included in the possessions of the abbey of Saint-Denis. We know that long before the invasion of the Francs a basilica, superbly ornamented and famous for the miracles wrought there, was raised upon Catulle’s field.

According to another version the early church succeeded a temple erected to Bacchus, while the story of Saint-Denis himself is a legend of pagan origin, the name Denis being indeed a derivative from the Greek name of the wine god, Dionysos.

The explanation is as ingenious as it is impious, and the author gives himself to its elaboration with a certain zest. Here it is:

It is well known that the country known under the name of the lie de France was once a grape-growing country. All the hills near the Seine were planted with vines and no department of France bore more fruit in proportion to its extent.

In such a country Bacchus was greatly respected. Per Bacco was a familiar oath and temples were raised to the god of wine and offerings made in the interest of the crops. As we know, most of the early Christian churches repose upon the ruins of temples or altars dedicated in remoter centuries to pagan deities. Notre-Dame covers the foundation of an altar raised to a nautical divinity, Saint-Germain-des-Pres stands upon the site of a temple to Isis, Saint-Pierre-de-Montmartre succeeds Mercury, and Saint-Denis displaces Bacchus.

Our impious author leaves nothing unaccounted for. Rustique and Eleuthere, the companions of Saint-Denis, he figures to have been created out of the supposed legend of the temple: Dionysio Rustico Eleuthero—Dionysio Frenchified becomes Denys or Denis; Rustico, because his altar was in the country; and Eleuthero or free, one of the surnames of Bacchus.

Along comes Christianity to the Gauls and the peasants receive the new faith but hold instinctively to the old traditions of paganism, and myths become mysteries. To form an alliance between the old beliefs—vague, effaced, but persistent, was easy to a clever pious legendary. He invents a martyr, canonizes the pagan divinity, while for the legend of Saint-Denis’ miraculous march from Montmartre to the site of the cathedral, this be-comes simply the glorified history of the god over-come by wine, who loses his head yet carries it with him.

Be that as it may the first edifice erected in honour of the first bishop of Paris fell into ruins in the Vth century and Sainte-Genevieve rebuilt it, while Gregoire de Tours describes the miracles worked in this temple for the cure of pilgrims and the chastisement of sinners.

The magnificence with which Dagobert rebuilt and invested the church and abbey quite casts the memory of the earliest constructions into the shade. Despite his ferocity, this last powerful Merovingien had the sentiment of art, but, as founder of religious monuments or as sovereign, his penchant for rapacity always breaks out. Thus to adorn Saint-Denis he carried off innumerable riches and ornaments from other sacred edifices, as his predecessors had done before him, contributing to the glories of the treasure his pious thefts.

In spite of all his vices Fredegonde’s grandson was a popular king. It is to be presumed that, in his large way, he had qualities of the heart, and his name lives in many an old song, as le bon roi Dagobert, as well as that of his companion, Saint-Eloy, the king’s artistic goldsmith, who by a set of chances as curious as those which befell the naif Koko became, as we have seen, treasurer, diplomat, bishop, founder of monasteries, saint!

From the beginning of his reign Dagobert undertook the rebuilding of the church. He deco-rated it with precious marbles, magnificent tapes-tries, bronze doors, vases of gold set with jewels. Saint-Eloy chiselled with his own hands the tomb of the martyrs and the great gold cross erected before the entrance to the choir, and, in order that so handsome a monument should have a dedication worthy of it, says tradition, Jesus Christ himself, surrounded by a glorious company of saints and martyrs assisted at the celebration. In one of the chapels the place is still shown, upon request, where the divine cortege made entrance into the basilica of Dagobert.

After Dagobert there were restorations by Pepin and Charlemagne, restoraticns almost completely obliterated, presumably by the terrible disasters following the Norman invasion and the civil wars of Charlemagne’s reign, for, during the interval between Charlemagne and Louis VII the church probably shared the fate of most of the monasteries of northern France, though no actual account has been preserved. The architecture of the central part of the crypt—its round arches and historic capitals—indicate the reconstructions of the XIth century, while of the vaunted magnificence of the church of Dagobert and the early Carlovingiens no material souvenirs remain except a few columns and marble capitals, s Landing upright against the walls of the crypt.

About the year 1091 a lad of poor parentage entered the abbey of Saint-Denis. This was Suger, destined to become in his mature years abbot of the monastery and famous as ecclesiastic, statesman, and historian. Louis VI was his pupil and he was the friend and counsellor of both Louis VI and Louis VII.

Immediately upon his appointment to the government of the abbey he put into action his long cherished ambition to rebuild the cathedral upon a scale of magnificence of which we still see in the existing church many evidences. He built rapidly the portail, the tower, the choir, the nave, and finally the lower chapels of the chevet and the apse which surmounts them. This work antedated Notre-Dame by about a quarter of a century.

Suger superintended everything—the quarrying of the stone, the choice of the woods, the design of the windows, the making of the cross and the sacred vessels, and composed the Latin couplets which described the objects of his concern. Under one of the three rows of arches above the main entrance runs an inscription recording the erection of the church by the abbe Suger, minister to Louis VI, with abbatial funds, and its consecration, in 1140.

The porch, formed by the first three bays of the church, contains some remains of the basilica of Pepin and Charlemagne, the secondary apse and its semi-circular chapels were built under Suger. The nave proper and most of the choir and transepts date from the reign of Saint-Louis, and, as we have said, are considered as the first perfected Gothic. The transepts have fine facades of the XIIth and XIIIth centuries, each with two unfinished towers, and had the plan been fully carried out there would have been six towers be-sides a central spire, in lead. The facade originally carried a spire on the north tower, which twice destroyed by lightning was finally done away with in the last restorations.

The abbey flourished exceedingly and uninterruptedly until the last years of the reign of the House of Valois. Louis IX and Philippe le Nardi made extensive repairs which occupied half a century (1231-1281), and the XIVth century added the lateral chapels of the nave, one after another. The last important additions were made under Henri II and Catherine de Medicis, who constructed a sumptuous chapel, known as the Chapelle des Valois, for the tombs of the princes of their race. This chapel, in the form of a rotunda, joined the church on the northern flank of the apse. It was destroyed during the regency of Philippe d’Orleans, who transported its fine columns to the Parc Monceau, where, forming a semi-circular Corinthian colonnade behind an oval piece of water, they simulate ancient ruins. The connection is clear, since the Pare Monceau was a property bought, in 1778, by Philippe d’Orleans

Philippe Egalite—under whose direction it was laid out as a garden. This Naumachie, as it was called, built in imitation of the circular pools of Roman origin for spectacular naval combats, was a great attraction in its day, and still forms an appealing feature of the park.

With Catherine de Medicis, Saint-Denis reached its zenith and the next century saw its rapid decline. Under the influence of Madame de Main-tenon, Louis XIV suppressed the abbey and its revenues were turned over to Saint-Cyr to enrich the king’s gift to his mistress. The reign of Louis XV demolished the buildings of the old monastery, after which came the Revolution with its wholesale demolition of tombs and degradation of the church, which became successively a ” Temple of Reason,” a depot for artillery, a warehouse for feed and flour, while awaiting threatened destruction. This was a time of strong compromises and in order to save even part of the magnificent cathedral its friends were obliged to offer it as a public market.

Already its roof had been taken off and the glass of its many windows broken or removed. The chapels were conveniently turned into stalls, to which their shape and disposition readily recommended them. From this grave peril the Concordat saved the church in 1806, % when an imperial decree made Saint-Denis the seat of a chapter and the tomb of a new dynasty.

” From Dodon, the first abbot of Saint-Denis, who lived in 627,” says Guilhemmy, ” to Jean-Francois-Paul de Gondi, cardinal de Retz, who was the last, seventy-three abbots governed the for motive the familiar Last Judgment with its contrasts of joy and sorrow, so popular with the sculptors of the Moyen Age. The lower panel contains a particularly spirited scene of the rising of the dead upon the Day of Judgment, and in the archivolt there is, to the right, the fantastic pro-cession of the damned, scourged by the usual devils and falling into the fires of the Inferno, while to the left an animated representation of Father Abraham receiving with glee the elect upon his bosom, where he holds them within the folds of a napkin, after the manner of a benevolent kangaroo.

The south door is given to the martyrdom of Saint-Denis and his companions. The saints and their executioners are figured in the voussoir, and in the tympanum Christ appears to Saint-Denis and his two companions in their prison. In the tympanum of the north door a poor caricature of Gothic style replaces a mosaic which Suger brought from Italy especially for the place and which disappeared in the various rebuildings of this tower.

Suger made two diplomatic voyages into Italy, which fact accounts for the slight Italian influence still noticeable in the facade, such as the alternate courses of white stone and black marble in the narrow, pointed bays which flank the middle rose window.

At the end of the north transept is another door of interesting workmanship, which has preserved six large statues, presumably double personalities representing the first kings of the Capetien dynasty—Hugues Capet, Robert the Pious, Henri I, Philippe I, Louis VI, and Louis VII—under the guise of ancestors of Jesus Christ. In the tympanum is again the history of Saint-Denis, his condemnation and punishment.

The arrangement of the interior of the church is full of character and individuality, differing considerably from the usual plan. We enter upon a sort of interior porch, composed of the first two bays, which, as we have said, remain from the church of the abbe Suger, strongly-built to sup-port the towers and consequently more resistant than the nave. Thus we look down into the nave and across to the choir and crypt, the choir raised by a considerable number of steps.

The nave, as we see it, built under Saint-Louis and Philippe le Hardi, by the abbots Eudes Clement and Mathieu de Vendome,` extends eight bays, the first blind, the last seven filled their complete width with immense windows. The roof of the nave has been criticized for its round arch, an uncommon fault in constructions of the period, and unsparingly revealed by the clarity of the garish modern windows, which date for the most part from the reign of Louis-Philippe. The explosions at Cour Neuve in 1918 shattered some of the windows, and at the moment there are many bare spaces in the roses as well as in the windows of the clerestory.

We have remarked already how Suger gave of his superfluity some glass to Notre-Dame, in which, having himself erected a similar monument, he must have taken a paternal interest. By his care the windows of Saint-Denis were filled with brilliant glass of which the few remaining fragments attest the extraordinary quality and beauty. During the Revolution many precious panels, hastily dismounted, were packed in the storage rooms of the Musee des Petits-Augustins—Lenoir saved what he could—but only a very little was restored to Saint-Denis and no one knows what became of the remainder.

The Virgin’s Chapel, in the centre of the apse, contains most of the original glass which was saved and the remainder occupies a window in the adjoining chapel on the left. The subjects depicted in small medallions are mystical, partly inspired by the Apocalypse, partly dealing with the life of Moses, and fragments of a series rep-resenting the Tree of Jesse. A careful examination of them reveals the original inscriptions which Suger furnished as explanatory of the figures, and one medallion in particular shows Suger himself prostrate before the Virgin, who receives the angel of the Annunciation.

Such other fragments of ancient glass as exist have been gathered from other churches and include some XVIth century glass bought at Rouen and liberally restored. All that is antique has been distributed throughout the chapels of the apse interlarded with modern imitations,. but the sensitive eye will have no difficulty in detecting the real and rejecting the spurious, and while much of the fragmentary assemblage is interesting, the three windows in the middle of the round-point are the only ones of complete importance.

The modern glass with which the church is filled represents an enormous outlay of funds with disastrous results. Louis-Philippe is the culprit, his idea being no less than to decorate the church with a series of colossal figures of the kings and queens of France beginning with the first race. The portraits done against blood-red backgrounds with strong yellows make really a vile disturbance in this beautiful cathedral and it is difficult to comprehend an epoch that could have countenanced them. If Louis-Philippe wanted to compensate the church for the depredations of the Revolutionists, he succeeds only in inspiring similar impulses.

The windows of this church are unhappily many and we must see much history thus violently presented, such as the life of Saint-Louis, the restoration of the cathedral under Napoleon, the interment of Louis XVIII, etc. The Tree of Jesse again occupies the north rose, while the subject of its companion, to the south, is the Creation, the signs of the zodiac, and the months and sea-sons. The legend of Saint-Denis, his martyrdom, burial, and the various reconstructions of his church from Saint-Genevieve to Saint-Louis, occupy the thirteen upper windows of the choir.

Let us return a moment to the Chapel of the Virgin, to the windows placed in 1150 by the abbe Suger. They are in small designs, a series of episodes in lozenges or medallions, and the part which receives the light is prepared so as to soften the passage of the sun’s rays. The glass of the Sainte-Chapelle, of which the greater part has been preserved, is a full century later than that which Suger ordered for his church. We know nothing of the artists employed by the abbot in their design and execution, almost eight centuries ago, yet their vigorous handling suggests strong personality and entire proficiency. Cimabue was the first known painter of windows. He lived a century later than the artists of the windows of Notre-Dame and Saint-Denis.