St Denis is beheaded. Tympanon on the St. denis, Paris. Soure: Wikipedia/Myrabella
St Denis is beheaded. Tympanon on the St. denis, Paris. Soure: Wikipedia/Myrabella

St. Denis in Paris

Saint-Denis is a jewel hidden in the derelict Northern suburbs of Paris..

Saint-Denis, Paris © Parisbooking
Saint-Denis, Paris © Parisbooking

The French government has coughed up with €4 mil, in order to renovate the façade of Saint- Denis, turning it from an ugly grey into the original hue of golden sandstone. A few days ago the scaffolds went up and some preliminary cleaning tests have already been carried through, uncovering a long hidden beauty.

Lying in a corner of one of the most derelict suburbs in Northern Paris it shows its wear and tear more than might be expected; basically its surroundings drag it down into the turmoil and stress of the constant socially, racially and religiously motivated eruptions, which from time to time explode in the streets and in the media. Anyone visiting the site might imagine that the French governments might have grasped this opportunity years ago to “upgrade” the area; but no! Although the building has been cared for during the years and is in no way falling apart, it is obvious that funding has been lacking. Dozens of statues are waiting in the back to be restored, while in some places the famous stained glass have had to be taken down in order to stop the decay. Probably one reason is that the church is such a poignant symbol of the France that was. Its story reaches back into the early Middle Ages, when the Merovingian king Dagobert chose the monastery as his royal necropolis. Since then 43 kings and 32 queens were buried there, some of which were the guillotined Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who were reinterred there after the restoration of the French monarchy, following the Napoleonic era. However, at that time the bones of their ancestors had already for a long time been dissolving in lime-pits, where they were dumped on the orders of revolutionary officials. Today the bones are kept in an ossuary in the crypt behind marble plates.

Louis XVII

The latest royal “funeral” was staged in 2004, when royalists were able to get permission to bury a small, rock-hard relic, presumably part of the heart of the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who was orphaned in 1793 and died of tuberculosis in 1795. The heart had been identified by DNA-analysis. At the “funeral” royalists flocked to the church; afterwards cries of “long live the king” was heard outside the cathedral hailing one of the pretenders to the French Throne. No wonder the government of the French Republic in the present political climate is feeling ambiguous about this potential center for right-winged pilgrimages; which to make the matter worse has been targeted by the “sans-papiers” – illegal immigrants – as a good place to demonstrate, hence their occupation of the Cathedral in September 2012; reverberating back through the centuries to the revolutionary desecration, which took place in 1793.

Bust of Henry IV at St. Denis
Bust of Henry IV at St. Denis

Now the royalists are once more stirring. The occasion is the embalmed head of Henry IV, which apparently escaped this ransacking. For centuries the head was passed along among private collectors until a journalist tracked it down in 2010. Later a multidisciplinary team of scientist identified the head as indeed that of Henry IV; although a DNA analysis failed, this was done using a combination of anthropological, paleopathological, radiological and forensic techniques. After the identification the mummified head was donated to Louis Alphonse, Duke of Anjou, one of the claimants to the French Throne. Anjou decided to have the head interred in the Cathedral of St. Denis after a national Mass in 2011, later referred to May 2012. However due to the election, Sarkozy withheld the permission. Presently the head is at present stored in an unknown place pending further deliberations and negotiations between the pretender to the throne, the Duke of Anjou and president Hollande.

St. Louis

Another hurdle, the government has to confront, are the celebration planned for the 800 anniversary of the birth of Louix IX, commonly known as Saint Louis, on the 25th of April 2014. Apart from being king, he was also a member of a trinitarian order and canonized in 1297. How the celebrations will be conducted is as yet unknown, although there can be no doubt that the catholic Church of France will miss this out on this opportunity to get some PR. Whether it will help to heighten the awareness of the monument in an international context is a yet unknown. It is a fact that while millions visit Notre Dame every year, only a measly 150.000 take the Metro out North.

Even though it is well worth a detour!


Basilique Cathédrale Saint-Denis
Basilique cathédrale de Saint-Denis
1, rue de la Légion d’Honneur
93200 Saint-Denis