Saturday, 29 March 2008


Wow, I've done a lot of posting this month, this post will make it my most posted month yet, a new record for me! Today I headed north to a suburb of Paris called Saint-Denis. It is home to the famous Saint-Denis church, but really the only reason I knew about it was because I read a pretty crappy book called Pillars of Earth. It was set back in the middle ages and followed one family across 2 generations, the father was a builder and the son followed in his footsteps. Eventually the son somehow finds himself in France (I won't go into details) and then ends up building a fantastic new cathedral just north of Paris (Saint-Denis) which was full of architectural revelations. I wouldn't recommend buying or even reading this book, it really wasn't that good, but the bit describing this modern wonder of a cathedral got me inspired to come visit. A side note to this, I actually saw English and French copies of this book in the gift shop at Mont-Saint-Michel. I don't know what it was doing there as I don't remember Mont-Saint-Michel being mentioned at all in the book, if it was mentioned it must have been very brief, and yet I didn't see the book on sale anywhere at Saint-Denis.

So this church was first built in the 470's and over the years the ties between it and the French monarchy have grown. It was most powerful in the 12th century when it was improved to it's present state. I was a little surprised that the architectural revelations mentioned in the book were actually true, this church had the first rose window of it's time. Just in case you don't know the rose window is situated below left, though I doubt this is actually that first rose window. I think the biggest improvement of this church over it's predecessors is that apparently in building this one they finally mastered the art of diagonal ribbing for the ceilings, this is shown below the rose window, where the ceilings of the chapels behind the altar have this diagonal shape. What this meant is that smaller pillars could be used and so the walls could be hollowed out and more stained glass windows put in. I think the church really did benefit from these new techniques as when I think of Notre Dame in Paris I always remember how dark it is inside, I guess they didn't use the techniques mastered here.

What is really famous about Saint-Denis, I mean apart from the fascinating architecture, is the fact that nearly all the French monarchs were buried here. I'm talking back to Clovis I in 511 and almost every king since then. This church was also where the queens were crowned, the kings being crowned in Reims.

Unfortunately the bodies are no longer in their tombs, after the French revolution there was a fairly large hatred towards all thing royal and so the people broke into this church, smashed a few tombs and dumped all the remains in a mass grave. They remained there until 1817 when the grave was opened and all the remains moved behind a marble wall in the crypt with all the names of the monarchs inscribed on it.

It was a bit freaky to walk through this place, it was like an indoor graveyard with all the tombs around the place. There were a couple that were particularly impressive, looked like someone was trying to compensate for something. The tomb below is of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany, the tomb is decorated with statues of the Apostles whilst underneath the King and Queen are shown dead, whilst above the canopy they are shown praying, meant to represent their resurrection. Apparently on the base are inscribed the great deed's of Louis' life, though it was only after reading Wikipedia that I had any idea what they might be. The deeds are pretty boring, reforming the legal system, reducing taxes, blah blah. The most interesting "deeds" of his life, though probably not inscribed on his tomb, was the divorce to his first wife, Joan of France.

He wanted to annul his first marriage so he could marry Anne and get his hands on Brittany. Usually back then annulment was granted because the husband and wife were too closely related, though apparently that was no impediment to them getting married in the first place. But old Louis wanted to try something different and wanted an annulment on the grounds that Joan was "malformed", and so he couldn't consummate the marriage. He went into great detail as to her deformity, which Joan of course argued against this and produced witness to testify how many times a night the king had found her "desirable", I'm about to run out of euphemisms soon. Luckily the story ends there with the pope at the time being forced to be on Louis' side and annulling the marriage. Sounds like a medieval Paul McCartney and Heather Mills saga, though I wonder if Joan got $50 million?

The other cool thing there was the below statue of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, they are meant to be praying, but I'm not sure what Marie-Antoinette is doing. These guys obviously weren't initially buried at Saint-Denis but in a different churchyard and covered with quicklime. In 1815 though a search was made for their remains, a few bones were found and some scraps of a lady's garment and these were proclaimed to be Louis and Marie-Antoinette and interred here.

Some of the bodies were really tiny, like the ones below, the women especially were child-size, though back then they probably were kids when they married. It is hard to get the sense of scale with nothing to compare it to, but take my word for it, they were pretty small. You can see in this photo that the queen has a couple of dogs at her feet and a lot of the men had lions. I don't know the significance of this whether they guarded the soul or guided it or if the sculptor just had some extra marble and liked dogs or lions.

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