“You’re not going there, are you?” we heard, over and over, when we said we planned to go to St. Denis.
“It’s dangerous,” they said. The reputation of the Paris suburb, six miles north of the Ile de la Cite, couldn’t be worse. The crime rate was double that of France overall. It is a working-class suburb, with high unemployment, rampant poverty and a population that was one-third immigrant, largely from the Maghreb. It is where the Islamist attacks on Paris began on Nov. 13, 2015, when three suicide bombers tried to blow themselves up at the soccer stadium.
But, it is also where nearly all the kings of France were buried, and where the oldest Gothic church stands. The Basilica of St. Denis is one of the most beautiful, and most historically important icons of Gothic architecture.
“What, another Gothic church?” you say. I apologize, but the chance to visit a string of such churches was the primary reason we chose to visit France rather than Italy or Greece. There is something about the dark, old, art that drew both of us. The cloudy, rainy, cool-blooded Romantic north attracts us more than the sunny, warm, Classical Mediterranean south. For me, perhaps, it is my Scandinavian DNA.
The Abbot Suger ordered the rebuilding of the church in St. Denis in the 12th century and its choir was completed in AD 1144. Suger was a Neoplatonist and saw in light — sunlight, daylight, any light — a metaphor of Deity. Churches built in the earlier Romanesque style were heavy, stone-ridden and with tiny windows, leaving their interiors dark and dank. Suger wanted to throw open the drapes and let the light in. The Gothic style, which he innovated, eliminated the heavy stone walls and replaced them with pillars and columns to hold up the roof, leaving the area in between to be filled with glass. As in Genesis 1: Let there be light, and there was light. A great C-major chord is sounded and a new vision of worship is begun.
Much of the basilica of St. Denis has been altered, and most of what is there now post-dates Suger, but the choir (that area at the east end of the church where the altar and apse are located) is his, and shows the Gothic plan of three stories: a ground floor, a triforium and above that the glorious clerestory windows, all color and light. The experiment was so successful, that for the next four hundred hears, it was the template for church construction. Churches under construction throughout Europe that had been begun in the Romanesque style were finished in the Gothic. Relics of the style remain even in churches built to this day: Somehow, like King James English becoming the sound and vocabulary for clerical language, Gothic has become the accepted ecclesiastical “look” for Christianity.
Entering St. Denis — like Chartres, or Rheims, or Notre Dame de Paris — you see the metaphor working: The light illuminates the darkness the way the moon and stars light up the night, or the burning embers of a hearthfire glow in the cracks of the dark ash. The building becomes an expansion of the human soul, spread upward and outward: The vaulting becomes the inside of your skull and the rose windows are its eyes.
The imagery is so successful that even a lumpen atheist can feel the emotional wallop: You can call it spiritual, if you want. The vocabulary is unimportant. The experience is genuine.
Again, click on any picture to enlarge
Thursday April 4
Gothic architecture began at St. Denis and we were there to see it.
Another Gothic church? You may well ask, but the fact is, each experience has been singular and distinct. The Basilica of St. Denis, with its odd mixture of Romanesque and Gothic, is very different from Chartres, which seemed chaste in comparison, or from Paris, which seems even more baroque.
St. Denis is also the burial place of French kings, and their funeral effigies lie like so many tanning salon patrons in the transepts. The effigies are of a much later date and not at all Gothic (with a few exceptions), but they didn’t seem out of place. Again, this is the peculiar magic of the Gothic style. Nothing seems out of place in it: It absorbs everything and makes it part of itself.
The west facade is rather blocky, with only one tower on the south side, leaving the north side truncated. There is the hint of a rose window in the center of the facade, but it doesn’t show inside, where a giant set of organ pipes takes pride of place at the west end of the nave.
Unlike Chartres, St. Denis is brilliant inside, which was the idea of its deviser, Abbot Suger in the 12th century, who had a rather neoPlatonic idea of divinity, with light being its metaphor. His design for St. Denis opened the way for the Gothic revolution in northern Europe.
The stone of St. Denis doesn’t seem as worn as that of Chartres. Certainly much of the sculpture is later restoration work, but even the oldest stonework seems a little crisper than its counterpart in Chartres. The basilica is also smaller than the cathedral, perhaps two thirds the size, or maybe a little smaller.
Yet, the proportion of the clerestory is greater and the nave arcade lower, making more room for glass — one of the things that makes the basilica so much more brilliant inside.
On the west face, the tripartite portal is black with soot. Carole first thought it was made of black stone, but you can see through nicks and chips that the stone is the typical limestone-sandstone grey. Paris has dumped a load of grime on St. Denis.
The windows are also easier to read, with larger imagery in proportion to the size of the glass. Again, the windows are not as old as the oldest windows at Chartres, but they are old enough, and they are less obscure.
There are only two large rose windows, at the ends of the transepts, but they are particularly brilliant and colorful, with a deep purple blue and a bright stopsign red. And, like Notre Dame de Paris, they are large enough to fill the pediments they occupy.
Its setting favors Chartres, which looms high on a hill above its village, and can be seen for miles around, the highest and most impressive point. St. Denis is stuck in a streetcorner in a lower class neighborhood in a suburb of Paris, surrounded with low rent apartments, tobacco stores and a shopping center.
We spent most of the day at St. Denis, soaking it in, walking around the crypt, the raised ambulatory, the nave. Sitting and meditating on the rose windows, feeling the weight and lift of the stone, the intensity of the sculpture.
I wound up making about 500 photos of the basilica and its surroundings. I got most of the sculpture and a good number of windows.
We have not tired of the Gothic, but each taste, like the food of Paris, only makes us want more.
Carole’s notes of the day:
A veritable pyramid of chocolate exquisiteness, poire ganache with fluted shell on the outside and inside, the top layer, chocolate ganache flavored with pear liquore and the bottom half tasted like black walnuts and reminded me of wet black walnut shells on the ground in the rain in the wintertime at home.
In the morning, I had a wonderful time at the packing and mailing shop, because the couple running the establishment were so kind and intelligent. And the stationery products were so cool. I had fun picking out stuff for friends back home.
We had such a good time there, it put R in a happy mood, too.
Then, I loved the sculpture on the entrance of St. Denis. It was black and smooth and looked like soapstone to me. And my favorite band in the arches was a passage of angels praying as they flew. And, stepping inside St. Denis made me gasp on the second step because of the ceiling and the light inside the basilica and the proportion of glass to stone. All of the sculpture on the outside of the basilica of workmen and farmers felt very fresh and took me back in history. There were lots of sculptures and carvings of musical instruments and musicians outside and inside, too.
The experience of going down in the crypt was something I have always wanted and it also felt like going back in time. I enjoyed talking with the French black teenagers on the lawn who wanted to practice their English. They were so much like my old students at Lindley Jr. High, where I taught in Greensboro, NC, in the 1970s.
I met an English couple outside the basilica and chatted with them for an hour. They told me about all of their vacation travels in America, out West. They haven’t been east of the Mississippi. Richard has taken me many times to every place they mentioned and so we were able to have a good conversation. We got along very well and laughed almost the whole time. They had studied the basilica and had attended a lecture about it and they showed me where the building had been greatly damaged during the French Revolution and where Napoleon had had it repaired and they were very upset with the poor quality of the repairs. It really was sickening to see all the heads missing from the statues.
They asked me if we thought South Dakota was a bit barren, and I replied, “Oh, yeah.” They did not know there was any food available in America besides hamburgers and iceberg lettuce salads. They thought American milk was strangely sweet. They were amazed at the long distances between cities and points of interest in America.
Obviously, the basilica of St. Denis was the high point of the day. It was everything Chartres wasn’t: bright, colorful, richly adorned, well proportioned.
But I want to put in a word for the salad we had at lunch. Yes, the food again comes near the top of the list. The salad at Le Table Ronde in St. Denis, just across the square from the basilica was one of the best salads I’ve ever eaten. It was a “salad with ham and poached egg.” It had mixed greens, fried baconlike ham in shoestrings, artichoke hearts, black olives, pommes frites, tomatoes, a poached egg sitting on a slice of baguette, shoepeg corn, all lightly coated with a dressing of oil and vinegar mixed with mustard, salt and pepper. It was heaven.
Beside that, it hardly seem worth mentioning the pizza marguerite we had for supper. “Take that, Domino’s,” said Carole.