In the Basilica of Saint-Denis, close quarters tell a story of power

As you squeeze through the narrow grid of funerary statues lining the chilly halls of the Basilica of Saint Denis, you might find that what you hear does not match what you see. Look up, and the audio tour’s grandiose descriptions like “royal necropolis” and “sacred burial ground” do describe the ornate stained glass windows flooded with light. Look down at your hips, though, and you’re crammed between tombs lined in rows, so orderly and sterile that they are more evocative of hospital beds than the final resting place for royalty from centuries ago.

The Basilica, built in the mid-eighth century, was an attractive piece of real estate much sought-after by over one hundred individuals lucky enough to be buried on its sacred grounds. (Saint Denis, the Bishop of Paris in the third century, supposedly picked up his head after being decapitated, and walked six miles to this very location as his final resting place.) Between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, forty-three kings, thirty-two queens, sixty-three princes and princesses, and ten great officers of the crown were buried there, among them Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen of France in the sixteenth century. Despite a close call in the French Revolution when the Basilica and its monarchical symbols were nearly completely destroyed, the Basilica was restored, and seventy recumbent statues now populate its halls.

For corpses of such royal status, commemorated by statues of such fine precision, one might expect the tombs to be raised above eye level against the backdrop of a cathedral. Anything would beat this arrangement: a tourist, taking a photo of a statue in front of her, mistook the one behind her for a table where she carelessly dropped her bag!

But the grid of statues is not an accident of poor museum planning. Its accuracy in reflecting French monarchical and sculptural culture comes not just from its form, but in part from this strangely compact layout.

In their no-frills layout, the individual statues gain status. Abbot Suger, who supervised the construction of Basilica Saint Denis, wanted desperately to make prominent the link between France and Charlemagne. Charlemagne was the Holy Roman Emperor in the ninth century who led the spreading of Christianity in Europe; so if Suger could show how France and Charlemagne were connected, then he could show that France was the true heart and home of Western Christianity. The Basilica, in every detail from its ceiling height to floor plan, reflects Suger’s strategy to connect the French back to Charlemagne and to the bible. The statues are an instance of such a design detail with theological weight: royal bodies lined up in order of their reign were highly-visible proof of how the French monarchy stretches back to Charlemagne.

Strength came in numbers for the French monarchy as it sought legitimacy as a Christian power. Each monarch, though deprived of the status comes from an individualized effigy, gained status when part of the theological lineage that would give the French more status as a nation. What better proof of theological lineage than physically mapping it out, statue by statue?

Perhaps the Basilica’s 2017 crowd might threaten to dilute the statues’ meaning, when the occasional wide-hipped tourist bumps into a king’s feet. However, that the cathedral still preserves the meaning it held to visitors of centuries past, through both its objects and its layout, is an uncommon feat when so many of the world’s treasures live unhappily out of context behind museum glass. The grid of kings is, it seems, still a powerful sight indeed.

The grid of funerary statues in the Basilica of Saint Denis (Photo by Alice Maiden).

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