Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Birthplace of the Paris I Love - Basilica of St. Denis

While browsing an English bookstore in Paris, I found this awesome book, Paris to the Past - Traveling Through French History by Train by Ina Caro.  This is a lady after my own heart:  she loves history and nothing is more thrilling than exploring ancient monuments and the people and events surrounding them.  Caro had previously written a travel book about driving through the provinces of Paris and tracing Paris' vast and impressive history by car.  With this train book, she details Paris' history vis-a-vis Metro stops.  In other words, she created a travelogue of exploring Paris' history - from medieval times - using Metro stops as her reference points and without having to stay overnight outside of Paris.   It's an amazing book and I wish I had found it earlier.  She makes the past come alive and Paris is probably the only city you can stop-hop and make the distant past come alive for several reasons:  France's history is geographically compact and the last 4-500 years were centralized in or near Paris; France's metro system is so advanced and efficient that (almost) everything you could possibly want to see in terms of historical value is within an easy walking distance of a metro stop or within an hour's (give or take) journey on high-speed trains.  Most importantly, the French have religiously maintained all of their historical artifacts.  Everything is exactly the way it was hundreds and sometimes a thousand years ago, barring truly extenuating circumstances (like the Revolution where the rebels desecrated tombs and such). Important places beyond Paris proper are doable as a safe, day trip including Reims, Angers, Orleans, Tours...the list goes on.  What her book does is take you on journeys throughout Paris while giving you a highly insightful narrative of the history of each place, in chronological order.  The book is inspirational and fun...if you have one month to visit Paris, use this book to recreate history!  I'm going to do the best that I can in my remaining time here.  Sad face at the thought of leaving Paris.  

So first stop is of course the basilica of St. Denis - medieval history is one of my favorite eras to explore.  I am fascinated by it.  I am that girl who drags my friends to medieval fairs. If you want to read an entertaining book inspired by passion for medieval history, try Michael Crichton's Timeline.  The movie does NOT do justice to Crichton.  After visiting many churches in many different countries, I think the gothic cathedrals of Paris are probably my favorite.  Gothic cathedrals originated in Paris and St. Denis is the granddaddy of them all.  They evolved from the austere Romanesque architecture and what an upgrade:  tripartite entrance portals (versus the dour single doors), a main ambulatory with radiating chapels, flying buttresses, enormous vaulted ceilings,  and...gorgeous light bathing the entire church, floor to ceiling via stained glass windows that took decades to complete and that are masterpieces themselves.  Prior Romanesque churches had low ceilings and no interior light because they were still used as defenses and thus only had small slits for ventilation to prevent arrows from coming through.  The basilica of St. Denis is widely believed to be the first church to use stained glass windows.  

So around 1137, a super ambitious monk named Abbot Suger - who had traveled to Italy and been impressed with the artistic cathedrals there - decided to redo the St. Denis basilica (St. Denis is the patron saint of Paris famed for carrying his head in his arms for miles and preaching right after his martyrdom via decapitation).  Abbot Suger is simultaneously responsible for not only revolutionizing architecture and spawning this new, gorgeous style of cathedrals (later built in Laon, Notre-Dame, Carthres and Reims, for example), but also for deifying the monarchy and centralizing his power.  Up until this point, France was still basically a feudal system with provincial barons voting for a king.  The concept of monarchical lineage/descent and further one that was ordained by God was unknown.  Suger knew that to get the massive funding he needed to build a beautiful cathedral and also to obtain protection for his abbey so that it would not be vandalized and attacked, he would need the support of the king who in turn would need the support of the people.  He, therefore, advised King Louis to ally himself with...the businessmen (tradesmen and merchants), and to protect them not only in Paris but throughout France.  A winning strategy that spread the king's influence and through taxation built up his coffers while also diminishing the power of the feudal lords.  Suger also was responsible for inculcating the concept of monarchs as divinely designated to the laity, a concept that the churches widely adopted and promulgated as it only meant further protection and patronage.  King Louis gained immense power this way and Suger got his cathedral.  Pretty clever and worldly for a monk, eh? 

Here is the facade (renovations to left side when I was there):

Facade of the basilica of St. Denis
One of the original steeples has been missing for centuries, but notice the rose-shaped window design in the center that would become one of the hallmarks of gothic cathedrals.  The arched triple entrance portals are another.  This is exemplary of the exciting technologically advances made during the medieval era.  Previous Romanesque churches only had one entrance primarily because the gates were supported by extremely heavy and huge solid-stone walls on either side.  
Now with the use of buttresses to relieve the pressure of the archways, there could be three large entrances, possibly to symbolize the trinity but also to vastly increase the sheer size of churches, generally.  

Here is the rose-shaped design from the inside:

rose stain glass window basilica of st. denis

Pretty amazing, right?  Caro's book notes that it was designed so that jeweled light would shine on the king whose throne was located right in front of it on the upper level of the church.  In fact, the rose window "symbolized the eye of God letting in the light, a theme that would be consistent throughout the Age of Cathedrals."  

So, imagine you are a "commoner," and you are coming to this cathedral for the first time ever.  Imagine how astounded you would be by the sheer soaring height of its steeples and the artistic embellishments all around it, there are carvings literally everywhere at the entrances and doors and each one is representative of a religious parable or concept.  

Then you walk this...

The vaulted archways are able to be supported not by heavy, ugly, plain stonemasonry (as found in prior churches) but wood beams - Suger spent years finding tall enough trees - due to the innovative trapezoid configuration of the wood beams supporting the arches.  So it looks like there's no stone at all supporting the vaulted arches.  I'm telling you, technological advancement in the medieval ages was extraordinary.  

Can you imagine how astounded you would be to walk into a house of worship so intimidatingly tall, so opulent starting with the gilded bronze doors, in comparison to the previous dreary, somber, severe Romanesque churches you have known your whole life.  Then you keep walking and...wait for come to this:

Are you blown away? It is impossible to convey via photograph the multi-colored glory and illumination created by the stain-glassed windows that go from floor to ceiling top and the vast height of the interior. Go see it for yourself.  Really.  It will take your breath away.   

This is the only remaining stained-glass panel from Suger's time - thrilling right?  To think of seeing something that was painstakingly created and admired almost one thousand years ago.  It is the Tree of Jesse.  But instead of recounting the Old Testament version with Jesse anointing David, the tree of Judah is seen sprouting from his navel with the kings of Judah seated on the branches of the tree and each covered by the fleur-de-lis, creating the symbology of divine descent for the French monarchy (as opposed to the ideology of the feudal lords who wanted to elect a king).  The intertwining of world politics and religion is fascinating.  

The Basilica of St. Denis also contains the necropolis of the French monarchs (Suger insisted on this in order to further protect his baby). The actual physical remains of the bodies were unearthed and discarded during the French Revolution, but the underground crypt itself and the tombstones remain and are morbidly fascinating.  

Going downstairs to the crypt...

crypt at st. denis basilica
...and then you are there.  It is creepy and cold.  A labyrinthian room for the dead.  Only a small portion is open for visitors.  But it was once the final resting place for French monarchs all the way from King Dagobert (the Merovingian king who in 640 ordered this royal abbey to be built on the alleged spot where St. Denis walked - carrying his head - to be buried) to the nineteenth century.  

Observing the gisants, covering statues and mausoleums is an education in history itself as, among other things, you can trace the development of the concept (the cult?) and importance of individuality - a defining characteristic of Western philosophical thought as opposed to, for example, the Eastern emphasis on communal ideals.  

For example, check out the following highly generic gisant of a monarch from the 1200s (one looks just like a dozen others interspersed throughout the church):

gisant st. denis basilica church cathedral
Many gisants had precious pets at their feet, they loved their dogs...human beings have not really changed much, right?

Now compare that with this, centuries later:

sarcophagus sarcophagi for tomb of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany
The early Renaissance sarcophagi for the tomb of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany.  Can you see the influence of Florentine sculptors (the Giusti brothers) who in turn were influenced by Michelangelo?   The gisants underneath the elaborate canopy are extremely lifelike. Under each of the arches sits one of the 12 apostles identifiable with their iconography (the apostle Paul holds keys in his hands) and at each corner sits one of four virtues.  As Caro emphasizes, "Even if you see nothing else, this early-Renaissance tomb of Louis XII, a mausoleum of incredible elegance, individuality, emotional and spiritual beauty, is worth the twenty-minute Metro ride to Saint-Denis."  

gisant of Louis XII at st. denis basilica
A close-up of the extraordinarily detailed gisant of Louis XII. 

tomb gisant henry II and Catherine de Medicis
Here I am next to the beautiful tomb of Henry II and Catherine de Medicis.  It is the only picture of myself from this visit that is not blurry.  :(  I put it here to illustrate the size of the monument which gets lost in photos.  There is a STORY behind why I look like I'm about to jump off a ledge.  Email me for details but it involves a scolding nun. Yes.  

Oriflamme at St. Denis Basilica, Suger Charlemagne
The Oriflamme, or, the battle standard that Suger claimed Charlemagne carried into battle against the Saracens.  Louis the Fat definitely carried the Oriflamme into battle and every French king for the subsequent 300 years did the same. This is a replica, of course.  

From Suger's creation came the Age of Cathedrals and the subsequent emphasis of the French cathedrals on beauty, light and awe-inspiring heights.  As you follow the trail of proceeding Gothic cathedrals around France, the evolution of France's philosophy and theology and politics can be found in the architectural details and accompanying story behind the building itself.  The details of each cathedral largely remain exactly they were when built, attesting to the superior technology and workmanship.  Churches were the center of social life and a manifestation of political power - to understand French history is to know its churches.  This is the France I love and that thrills me each time I visit Paris.  

p.s., If you haven't already and like historical fiction as much as I do, read Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett.  Follett weaves a highly elaborate and engrossing narrative around the building of a cathedral, following the lives of the characters involved in the several lifetimes it took to build one cathedral.  You cannot put this book down. 

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