Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral
The burial place of French royalty is an easy Métro ride away from central Paris. But the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis isn't just a necropolis--it's also a lovely, light-filled example of early Gothic church architecture.
"I can see dead people"--a famous line from The Sixth Sense, a 1999 movie--could be the motto of visitors to the on the northern edge of Paris. Granted, the Basilica's long-decayed occupants are in sarcophagi or ossuaries, but recumbent stone replicas make the 42 kings, 32 queens, 60+ princes and princesses, and several royal dogs appear more real than you might guess.
The church is on the site of a Gallo-Roman cemetery where Saint Denis was buried after being martyred around 250 AD.
A Benedictine abbey was later founded on the cemetery site, and ever since 500 AD or so, most French kings and queens have been buried in the abbey.
In the 12th Century, Abbot Suger (who served as Regent of France during the Second Crusade) built a new church around the abbey's Basilica. The resulting Saint-Denis Basilica, which was completed in the 13th Century, is widely regarded as the first example of Gothic architecture.
The Basilica was elevated to cathedral status in 1966, more than 800 years after work began on the current façade.
What to see:
The Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis has three main attractions:
Hours and admission fees:
Opening times may be affected by special occasions, but in general, the hours are:
Ticket prices vary, with a discount for visitors under 26 years old. EU citizens under 26 get in free.
Audioguides and guided tours (mostly in French, but with occasional English tours) are available.
For up-to-date opening times and prices, check the Practical Information page on the Basilica's official Web site. (The site also has a "Guide Booklet" in PDF format that you can download in a dozen languages.)
Getting to Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral:
The easiest way to reach the Basilica from Paris is on, which runs north-south through Paris with connections to other Métro lines along the way.
Trains run frequently, and you need only a standard Métro ticket to reach your destination of (an underground station near the northern end of the line).
Leave the station via the "Basilique Saint-Denis" exit and follow the signs to the cathedral.
BELOW: As you leave the Métro station, you'll see directional signs. The Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral is only three minutes away on foot.
BELOW: The Basilica is at 1 Rue de la Légion d'Honneur, just beyond the Place du Claquet and the Mairie (a.k.a. Hotel de Ville) or Town Hall. The façade was built from 1135 to 1144 and restored in 2015.
BELOW: The Basiica's interior represents the first major example of Gothic architecture.
BELOW: On sunny days, stained-glass windows distribute
patches of rainbow light across the Basilica's interior.
BELOW: The Basilica has two rose windows. This is one of
BELOW: The Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis has dozens of , such as these funerary sculptures of Charles V (1338-1380 AD) and Jeanne de Bourbon (1338-1377).
BELOW: Every body should have a dog (or even two).
BELOW: There comes a point where "recumbent" becomes
BELOW: Although it's a national monument, the Basilica is far quieter than you might expect. Relatively few individual tourists or tour groups find their way to Saint-Denis, although Cheryl Imboden made the trek (and many of the photos on this page) .
BELOW: During our visit, an artist was painting a scene from the Basilica's interior.
BELOW: "Encryption" used to have a different meaning than it does today. In the second photo, Durant Imboden follows the arrow to the tombs downstairs.
of Saint-Denis is brighter and less creepy than most. The
here) has large stained-glass windows and an attractive tile floor.
BELOW: Not far away from the chapel, the surprisingly modest holds the bones of--among others-- and , whose remains were moved from the Madeleine Cemetery of Paris in 1815.
The instigator of the move was Louis XVIII,, the last king to be buried in the Basilica (in 1824, when he was also the last king of France to die while on the throne).
BELOW: In addition to graves, tombs, and the Bourbon Chapel, the Crypt has an area for exhibitions (in the background of this photo, behind the columns and vaults).
BELOW: One of the Basilica's more intriguing features is the , which--according to the official description--shows the remains of earlier structures.
The Archaeological Crypt also features enough empty sarcophagi to fill a bathtub showroom.
Saint Denis, the Basilica's namesake martyr, was once buried here.
BELOW: On the way out of the Crypt, you'll pass the , which contains bones that were taken from the royal tombs after the French Revolution. Louis XVIII (mentioned above), who was restored to the throne in 1814, had the bones recovered and brought back to the Basilica.
Wall plaques identify the Royal Ossuary's occupants, beginning with Dagobert I, who died in 639 AD.
BELOW: Back upstairs, a sign directs paying visitors to a separate reception or exhibition area with toilets.
BELOW: In the exhibition area, you can see a model of the Basilica and surrounding neighborhoods as they looked 800 years ago.
You may notice from the model that Saint-Denis once had a spire. The 85-meter or 297-foot structure was dismantled in the mid-19th Century after being damaged by tornadoes, and its carefully-marked and numbered stones were stored alongside the Basilica.
If the current restoration project stays on track, a rebuilt spire will be in place by the early 2030s.
Next page: Saint-Denis (Paris suburb)
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