The French town of Saint Denis is named for the bishop who, in 250AD, supposedly walked there from Montmartre – a distance of about seven kilometres. He carried his own decapitated head the whole way. A small shrine to the martyr eventually became the Basilica of Saint Denis. Today, it’s the oldest gothic building, historic necropolis of French royalty and no doubt final stop on many miserable journeys.
Now, when you’re going through something even ever-so-slightly unpleasant, it almost never helps to consider the ways things could be worse. So, say that a thunderstorm has forced you to take refuge in an abandoned violin store. You would no doubt be cold and miserable. And while things could be worse – the violin store could be in business and flooding the world with the sharp and screeching sound of strings – the thought won’t dry your soaked clothes.
So, despite the head still attached to my body and the weeks since I’d needed to bury anyone, it was with reservations that I took the metro to Saint Denis. But I had to see the oldest gothic building for myself.
A warning for travellers
On a Parisian terrasse overlooking the Seine, a local had warned me of what to expect from my trip north of the capital. To me, the comparatively high crime rate in the neighbourhood was of less concern than the ongoing construction work. Apparently, the government had committed to rebuilding the basilica’s left spire. Scaffolding supported that side of the building and wooden panels partly obscured the main entrance. It would be like that for the next decade.
“Still,” she’d said, seeing my face drop, “things could be worse.”
I’d paid my bill and made my excuses before she could start suggesting exactly how. But as I arrived in the courtyard between the Hôtel de Ville and the Basilica of Saint Denis a few days later, I found out for myself.
An inflatable attraction swelled to hide what was left of the view. Three kids took turns pounding a football against an outer wall of the oldest gothic building in the world. A man urinated on but not in a public toilet. Wondering if all of this might be my fault for believing my misfortune would stop at scaffolding, I hurried inside.
The origin of gothic architecture
The final resting place of Saint Denis had been a popular pilgrimage site for centuries. Followers erected the first shrine around 313AD. But by the 12th century, as that era’s unruly youths and public urinators drove more of them inside, the basilica was struggling to accommodate the number of visitors.
So it was that in 1135, Suger, Abbot of Saint Denis, took action. He began repairing and enlarging the basilica using emerging techniques of the time. Among them were the now-iconic rose windows and ribbed vaults. These allowed the building to reach higher and let in more light. With the completion of the choir in 1144, the Basilica of Saint Denis became the model for similar buildings across France – and the first example of gothic architecture.
Suger died before he could see the reconstruction completed. But successors continued his work. Some even relocated the remains of previous monarchs to what was becoming the preferred necropolis of French royalty.
Inside the oldest gothic building in the world
Inside, members of the church arranged flowers and lit candles. The chaos of that morning stayed outside – only the light found its way in through the stained glass. The walls were bone white.
In plain view and in pockets around corners and under arches, the likenesses of more than 70 royals lay carved into marble. Among them Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Charles V, the king who abandoned Sainte-Chapelle and the Palais de la Cité.
The oldest of these effigies were veined with blue like a particularly smelly cheese. Others bore the etched names of long-dead vandals in distant languages. But all were carved with attention to detail, their subjects preserved with dignity. I saw and, more strikingly, heard one group of visitors chastised by an elderly attendant for touching or trying to touch the carvings. She never moved from her fold-out stool, the attendant. She didn’t even look at the perpetrators. Just whispered into an acoustic spot on the wall, transforming her warning into a ghostly hiss in the ears of a family of four. The youngest cried. It really was something.
In the crypt below, the royal ossuary collected what remains could be recovered after the necropolis was ransacked during the French Revolution. In a hidden alcove, two walls enclosed a small space with the names of every person buried or reburied here. Following a draft led to the archaeological crypt, ancient and unmarked stone tombs dating from as early as the martyrdom of Saint Denis and stretching into distant darkness. As far as I could see, they were empty. But the Basilica of Saint Denis goes way back.
Exploring the town of Saint Denis
It took a few hours and several laps to take in the Basilica of Saint Denis and another ninety minutes to make my meandering way back to the metro station, all the while nursing a thought I usually tried not to let take hold.
The oldest gothic building in the world, despite the distractions of circumstance, lived up to my expectations. From the rose windows to the choir bathed in light, the towering marble statues to the stories of graverobbing, the basilica scratched my itch for gothic architecture and grisly history alike.
But more than that, the town of Saint Denis – with its paint peeling off shutters, wooden doorframes turned soft by rain, vines spilling out of gutters – felt like a suitably gothic setting for such a building. The nearby Parc de la Légion d’Honneur, a tangle of footworn paths and untamed edges, was something close to wild on the outskirts of a city whose green spaces were usually so carefully pruned.
Just a few strides from the metro station, a stranger tapped me on the shoulder to return the notepad fallen from my pocket.
I let the thought take hold after all. Things could have been worse.