A short metro ride from the centre of Paris lies the troubled suburb of Saint Denis. In the third century, the area was revered as the burial site of the first Bishop of Paris, Denis, who was martyred on the hill of Montmartre. Today, it is known for its soaring crime rate and as the home of the terrorists who attacked Parisians in November 2015. Hardly the basis for a recommendation for tourists.
And yet, among the ethnic sweetshops, halal butchers and gaudy homeware stores, the kings and queens of France lie in eternal rest.
From the tenth to the nineteenth century, the crypt of the magnificent Basilique royale de Saint-Denis became the final resting place of 42 monarchs and 48 nobles. The most famous tombs are those of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and Henri II and his wife Catherine de Medici.
Arriving at the Basilique de Saint-Denis metro station we nervously looked for signs to the basilica. There was no need to worry. The basilica is clearly signposted and a mere five minutes from the station. We headed outside to find a slightly run-down shopping arcade busy with Saturday morning shoppers. A street food stall had attracted a stream of hungry locals eagerly tucking in. We scooted past, turned a corner and there it was, standing tall and proud over a neat and tidy square.
The building is architecturally important because it was the first to be constructed in what we now call the Gothic style. It has a central aisle, clerestory windows – windows set high up to flood the interior with light – flying buttresses and a rose window. The main building is free to visit. For the royal necropolis you need a ticket which gives you access to the tombs on the main floor, the arcade of chapels and the crypt.
Walking through the side door we stepped into an army of marble men and women resting peacefully on white slabs. It was easy to imagine one reaching out a hand or sitting up to stretch and yawn. The mythical undead rising up.
The effigies over the tombs are incredible. Each captures the likeness and personality of the tomb’s resident. The dress, facial features, symbols and favoured animals are all delicately carved into the solid marble. The most ornate tomb is that of Henry II and Catherine de Medici. Even in death, their status stands out proudly among this regal gathering.
During the French Revolution, the status of these tombs was a drawback. The tombs were broken open and the remains thrown together into trenches. The evidence of the vandalism has been preserved in the crypt where a jumble of empty open caskets lie behind a screen. In the early nineteenth century a restoration programme saved much of what we see today. The remains that could be identified were gathered and each placed into a new grave quietly marked with a black marble slab.
The most startling monument is the mummified heart of the Dauphin, son of Louis XVI and Maire Antoinette, sealed into the wall of the crypt. It is gruesome and tragic. The boy died at the age of ten, after an illness and three years of imprisonment.
Visiting the Basilica Royale de Saint Denis takes a little effort and a little nerve. Inevitably, Saint Denis’s reputation is far worse than the reality. It is certainly run-down, but there was nothing to make us feel uncomfortable or anxious. The rewards make the trip worthwhile. For architecture enthusiasts the cathedral is a remarkable building. For history fans, the effigies of the royal necropolis are striking. They provide a unique insight into the men and women who had such a powerful impact on the history of Europe.
Feature Image: Clovis I by fmpgoh on www.flickr.com