From the lands of Charlemagne does THL Eldred Ælfwald send greetings!
My journey to France includes a visit to the first Gothic building--the basilica of Saint-Denis. The basilica is built on the site of the cemetery in which Saint Denis (d. 250 C.E.), the first bishop of Paris, was buried. The Abbey of Saint-Denis has been closely associated with the French monarchy since time of the Merovingian kings of France. The first monarch of France to be buried at Saint-Denis is Dagobert (628-638 C.E.) who is considered the founder of the monastery that was there. Dagobert's decision also marked the first time that a French king had been buried near the remains of martyred saints. By the time of Abbot Suger (abbot from 1122-1151 C.E.) the monastery at the site had become one of the most powerful in the Kingdom. Most of Suger's predecessors were politically astute men who were able to have influence with the monarchs. Suger himself was advisor to two kings (Louis VI and Louis VII) and regent of the realm during the second Crusade. It is Abbot Suger who is responsible for the construction of the basilica that doubles as the necropolis of the kings of France.
Abbot Suger's basilica is the first structure to incorporate all the elements of "classic" Gothic architecture into one building. The pointed arch, ribbed vaulting, flying buttresses, and, of course, stained-glass windows all combine to produce the first masterpiece of Gothic architecture. As with Notre-Dame de Paris, Saint-Denis is surprisingly dark inside the basilica as one enters from the west. However, as we made our way down the length of the nave to the chancel, the royal genealogy of France was well illustrated by the monuments to the Kings and Queens of France. Throughout the basilica are stone effigies representing (most of) the monarchs of France since the time of Charlemagne.
Upon reaching the transepts, the full glory of Abbot Suger's architectural vision was made manifest. The chancel is flanked by a pair of rose windows (which date to about 1170). The north rose window is consecrated to the Rod of Jesse. Some of this window is still original and some is a 19th century reconstruction. It is interesting to note that this window served as the inspiration for a window in Chartes' Cathedral. The southern window is dedicated to "God the Father" surrounded by angels, the signs of the zodiac, and the labors of the months. However, the rose windows are secondary to the magnificence of the stained glass windows that envelop the chancel! Sadly, however, little of the original glass remains today. One can only imagine what the windows and their play of light would have been like. Some of the windows are lost to time, others to war and the Revolution. Windows that Suger commissioned, one depicting the story of Charlemagne, and the other the First Crusade, have disappeared. Much of the glass seen today is of 19th century origin from the restoration work commissioned by Napoleon.
However, as with most churches of the period, extensive remodeling and rebuilding has occurred over the centuries. The transepts were enlarged at the request of Saint Louis so as to make the church "a mausoleum where the Royal Ancestors' tombs and their memorials could be put with honour." The monastery was fortified during the Hundred Years' War, and later the church was virtually dismantled during the French Revolution--its lead roof removed, the treasury melted down, the tombs taken apart or destroyed and the stained glass removed. Napoleon attempted to have the basilica restored in 1805, but those efforts have been considered by many to be a failure and in some ways worse than the vandalism that occurred during the Revolution.
In spite of this sad epilogue to the story of the basilica of Saint-Denis, the basilica still serves its purpose as the mausoleum to the Royal Houses of France. Echoes of Abbot Suger's vision can still be discerned in the vaulted ceilings, the flying buttresses and the colorful play of light from the stained glass windows.
My next missive from France will describe a reliquary in glass!
THL Eldred Ælfwald