The Basilica of St. Denis has two important claims to fame. It is notable for being one of the earliest masterpieces in the Gothic style. More important, though, the site is believed to be the burial place of St. Denis, France’s patron saint, who died c. 275. As such, it has long been a focus for French patriotism and pride.
St. Denis (or St. Dionysius) is said to have been the first bishop of Paris and to have been beheaded in the area now known as Montmartre (literally “Martyrs’ Mount”). His grave became a place of pilgrimage and a succession of churches was built on the site. These included an abbey, founded by King Dagobert I c. 630, and a new church, commissioned by Charlemagne. The town of Saint-Denis—then a short distance north of Paris, but now part of its suburbs—grew up around the site.
The present abbey was begun by Abbot Suger, a powerful cleric who was also Regent of France whenLouis VII was away on crusade. Suger’s building showed early signs of the new Gothic style, particularly in its vaulting. The chief significance of the abbey, however, is that it became the resting place of the kings of France. This practice dates back as far as the sixth century and became traditional from the tenth century onward. After that, all but three of France’s monarchs were interred there. Many of them are commemorated in a remarkable series of carved effigies, commissioned by Louis IX.