Thursday, May 15, 2008

Basilica of St Denis, Paris (part 1)

One church I like to visit repeatedly is the former monastic sanctuary now known as the Basilica de St Denis. Flourishing in the 3rd century, St Denis has since become the patron saint for those suffering from headaches, an association which undoubtedly stems from the story of his martyrdom (after being beheaded, he reportedly got up and carried his head to where it/he was eventually buried). He had been instrumental in bringing Christianity to Paris, becomings its first bishop. His importance grew steadily as the centuries progressed, with the church now known as St Denis becoming a major destination for pilgrims. Since the basilica is outside Paris (to the north), few tourists bother with the additional 30-minute ride on the metro, but I prefer this church to any other in Paris.

One of these pictures shows the ribbed vaulting in the ceiling of the northern aisle leading around the apse and to its chapels. This seemingly simple vaulting is something I have admired for decades, for I believe it is a very early example of ribbed vaulting, instrumental in leading into the Gothic style of church architecture which would continue for centuries and is still being imitated today.

The gargoyle within the sanctuary was momentarily lit by strong sunlight streaming through the southern clerestory windows. I have not altered the colours in any way, and as I shot, enjoyed them shifting as clouds drifted by.

I have also been intrigued by the inevitably straight rows of chairs in cathedrals, and cannot leave without taking just a few shots of the sunlight playing on the highly polished wood of the worn chairs.

St Denis has been the burial site for French monarchs ever since King Dagobert (d. 639). On the first anniversary of the beheading of Louis XVI, a mob invaded the basilica and dismantled most of the royal graves, scattering bones at will. Napoleon later had the damage be repaired, but I can still remember standing in the crypt, pondering the stacks of unidentified bones sorted by type. I was therefore disappointed to find that the bones have been removed (for proper burial, for DNA testing to reassemble skeletons?) I include a picture looking up the stone stairway which descends into the large crypt. Millions of pilgrims ascended and descended these steps in order to venerate the saint.

Finally, the structure of St Denis enables one to get very close to the bottoms of some of the stained glass windows in the crypt. I took advantage of this and include several pictures (camera hand-held) of the glass, showing how the ancient painting on the glass is wearing thin but many of the colours remain remarkably true some 800 years later. [Click here for more of my photographs of the Basilica of St Denis.]