The Basilica of Saint Denis

5 August 2012

I love visiting the basilica at Saint Denis – it’s so unapologetically gloomy inside despite the sumptuously beautiful stained glass windows that allow rainbows of light to tumble onto the cold stone floor. It’s full of royal tombs, some stately but most relatively simple, all arranged with very little thought to aesthetics and basically crammed into every concievable nook and cranny of the transept.

I first visited Saint Denis as an undergraduate in 1996, when I was packed off to Paris to research my dissertation, which had to be about an aspect of French art. My original plan was to write about the luridly gruesome royal tombs at Saint Denis but in the end I opted to write about representations of Marie Antoinette in pre and post Revolutionary art. However, I’m still fascinated by the tombs at Saint Denis, particularly those of Henri II and Catherine dei Medici; François I and Claude de France and, most especially, Louis XII and Anne of Brittany – all of which are superbly macabre and also, in their own way, rather touching.

On the 21st January 1815, the remains of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were moved from their resting place close to the Madeleine in Paris to the Basilica St Denis, there to lie for eternity alongside the bodies of their ancestors although possibly not in the way that they had planned as by the time they were interred here the remains of the royalty of France had been removed from their graves and dumped into mass graves outside the Basilica in the autumn of 1793 before being hurriedly replaced higgledy piggledy and with very little order all together in the crypt.

Their bodies rest in the crypt below the main church, but above there stands their beautiful memorial statues by Edme Gaulle and Pierre Petitot. The statues that commemorate the royal couple here at St Denis are very different to those at the Chapelle Expiatoire and have a regal dignity and solemnity with none of the almost Baroque flamboyance of their counterparts.

I really like that Marie Antoinette is shown wearing clothes from the early nineteenth century, although it makes me sad that she wasn’t there to preside over the changing fashions.

I don’t know, and nor do I wish to know, why her breasts are so shiny in comparison to the rest of the statue.

Beautiful but so sad.

The statue of Louis XVI bestows the maligned and ridiculed King with a dignity that he was denied in real life.

I always feel very moved when I stand in front of the memorials to Louis and Marie Antoinette. As with the Chapelle Expiatoire you can’t help but be moved by the sad fates of the unfortunate King and Queen and it is impossible not to wish that their story had had a very different end. It is a comfort though that they ultimately ended up at St Denis just as they must always have assumed that they would do before the outbreak of revolution.

To see the actual final resting place of Louis and Marie Antoinette, you have to descend to the chilly and gloomy crypt of the Basilica, where the remains of dozens of Bourbons lie.

Louis XVI’s tomb in the crypt, where he is buried alongside his wife and brother Louis XVIII. There are also memorials to Mesdames, Louis XVII and Madame Elisabeth.

There’s something so profoundly sad and touching about the tombs of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at Saint Denis. They are precisely where they should be – surrounded by family, but it’s horrible to think of the journey that brought them there.


How sad – a single pillar commemorating the memory of the boy king, François II, son of Cathérine de’ Medici and adolescent husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. His parents, Henri II and Cathérine lie nearby in their sumptuous tomb:

Henri and Cathérine, united in death.

The tombs are amazing – at the top they have the king and queen as they would have been in life, decorously kneeling at prayer and dressed in all their regal splendour. Underneath though is very different, with stark marble sculptures that show them naked and vulnerable in death.

Behind the tomb of Henri II and Cathérine de’ Medici there is that of Louis XII (later husband to Henry VIII’s sister Mary) and his Queen, Anne of Brittany.

This amazing tomb is probably one of the most splendid and impressive ever created and it is a miracle that it survived the violence of the revolutionary era, when the royal tombs at the Basilica of St Denis were desecrated and destroyed and their contents thrown into a common grave.

When Louis XII died on New Year’s Day 1515, just three months after his wedding with Mary Tudor, his successor François I, commissioned this amazing free standing tomb to hold his remains and those of his second wife, Anne of Brittany.

The splendid tomb was designed by Florentine sculptors, Jean and Juste de Juste, an uncle and nephew team, and took fifteen years to complete.

The canopy beneath which the sculptures of Louis and Anne’s corpses lie, is ringed with statues of the twelve apostles, while at the corners perch the four virtues, who are sculpted in a sensual, muscular mannerist style that is reminiscent of the work of Michelangelo.

I find the design of these grandiose tombs very interesting – I love the contrast between the royal figures on top, typically depicted kneeling in prayer and dressed in flowing robes and jewels and the naked, sprawling corpses that lie beneath.

I felt a bit sorry for Anne of Brittany though – I always got the impression that she was shyly devout and retiring and wondered if she had any input into the plans for her final resting place, on which a depiction of her naked corpse would be displayed forever.

On the other side of the basilica you can see the stately tomb of Louis and Anne’s daughter Claude de France and her husband, François I, who were the parents of Henri II.

You can also see the tomb of Henri IV and Marie de’Medici, parents of Henrietta Maria of England.

Underneath the main basilica there is the crypt, which has even more tombs including these sad plaques to the unfortunate sons of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette:

Among the royal plaques downstairs, you can also see one for Louis XIV. It’s strange that the most famous and magnificent of all the French kings doesn’t have a big flashy tomb like the ones in the transept isn’t it?