Exiting the Metro at Basilique Saint-Denis station, just 30 minutes north of central Paris, for a moment I feel like I have been transported to another continent; at the very least to another time period. The bland, unadorned, concrete apartment buildings crowding the street look to have been built sometime in the 80's. Perhaps they housed workers and their families in the years leading up to the 1998 FIFA Soccer World Cup? Stade de France — or STADEFRANCE as the official logo goes—was the venue for the World Cup that year, and it stands just south of the Parisian town/suburb of Saint-Denis.
The street outside the Metro station today is busy. There is a diverse ethnic mix in evidence, as well as a wide age spread. The group with the highest representation this morning is north african Maghrebi: Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians. While commonly seen anywhere in the greater Paris area, Saint-Denis along with Saint-Ouen, Chateau Rouge, and Goutte-d’Or, have the highest densities of this ethnic group. Depending on how the statistics are presented, Maghrebi are said to make up between 5 and10% of the current population of France, and that 15% of newborns in France currently have a least one Maghrebi grandparent.
The next largest group on the street this morning are young mothers, both Maghrebi and Causacian, with their young babies and infants. It’s Monday morning and there are not many fathers in evidence: I wonder how many are single mothers?
A few elderly singles are out and about with their shopping trolleys. It’s cool in mid-November in Paris—10-12C maximum is average for this time of year—but not freezing. The elderly singles aren’t smiling, they’re surviving. As the weather gets colder, more effort is needed just to survive; self-preservation is the primary concern of this group . . .
It’s only a short five-minute walk from the Metro station to the Basilique Saint-Denis itself. Like so many ageing monuments in Europe, today it is shrouded in scaffolding and canvas. Only the left-hand portal is unveiled, it’s disarmingly smooth and clean facade gleaming in the low November sun.
Constructed between 1100 and 1250, the majority of the cathedral is now more than 800 years old. It is said to be have been the first true Gothic cathedral constructed in France; I am drawn here because I’ve heard it is the burial site of the Kings of France. My initial interest, however, is in the story of Saint-Denis himself; I’m guessing there must be a substantial reason why he is the patron Saint of the French people.
In around 250AD, Roman authorities beheaded Saint-Denis, the first Bishop of Paris, to put an end to the catholic conversions he was instigating in large numbers at the time. The story goes that after he was beheaded on butte Montmartre he carried his head in his hands—while continuing to preach the word of Jesus—to his future burial place six miles to the north; the site of the current day Basilique Saint-Denis. Saint-Denis' martyring caused his burial site to quickly become a Christian pilgrimage destination, and over time the buildings and places of worship at the location expanded. In 639, the pious King Dagobert I—King of the Franks—was buried at the site marking the start of the future trend for the French kings.
Inside the cathedral today there is a palpable sense of reverence. It is quiet, clean, well maintained, and there are only a few visitors; being a little out of the way it’s not on the usual tourist route. This grand building, however, is the real deal. The pomp and ceremony of the many royal funerals—and the occasional coronation—that have taken place here can be felt in the air. The magnificent robe and crown/helmet from the 1830 coronation of Louis XVIII are beautifully displayed in a side chapel. A marvellous marble sculpture of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette praying in an apsal chapel.
Paying the small entrance fee, I descend into the royal crypt. It is a low-ceilinged room, partially below ground level, yet somehow remarkably bright and airy. Many of the royal tombs in this vault were desecrated during various conflicts, notably the French Revolution. Scattered bones were later collected and placed together in an ossuary—an extraordinary list of names fill the plaques that stand by its door.
Sculptures, cenotaphs, and tombs are scattered around the crypt as well as the rear of the cathedral itself. A neat display of ornate boxes reveals them to contain the hearts of some of the Kings, including the great Louis XIV — Le Roi Soleil, the Sun King. The final resting place of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette is particularly striking, having the most central and prominent location in the crypt; royalist supporters moved their remains here from a mass grave at the rear of Eglise de Madeline in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
Finally I arrive at the focal point of the visit. In the depths of the crypt is an archeological dig site. There is evidence that this was the site of a Gallo-Roman cemetery prior to Saint-Denis' burial here.
It is eerily quiet, and I am alone in the crypt. All of a sudden, a vortex of energy swirls around me. I see faces. Noble faces. Faces of Kings and Queens. Faces of children. Noble-born children who died young.
Then, he is there. His head held playfully askew in his hands. Saint-Denis smiles a knowing smile and winks at me . . .
November 20th, 2014.