The Basilica of St. Denis fell outside of Paris of its day but was absolutely central to its political and cultural life. Today it is right on the city’s margins.
A visit to St. Denis today may entail snaking through a labyrinthine market, stumbling across two euro dolls, kitschy iPhone covers and the occasional discount steak or chicken. The symphony of languages and dialects is at once energizing and disorienting – accents of French native to West Africa, arabic spoken with distinct north African cadence, homemade French, peppered with popular phrases, anglicisms and argot meld into the soundscape. Eurozone crisis country languages also strengthen the texture of the neighborhood’s sound – Spanish and Portuguese hold their own along the rest. It is a vibrant neighborhood. A marginal urban zone. A world of difference from its past.
Political Power in France of today lies far from basilica. The religious symbols of power no longer hold the same significance. Indeed, the republics that succeeded the demise of monarchy reshaped significance of Basilique Saint Denis’ geography.
In its heyday, the status of Basilique St Denis as a royal abbey derived primarily from the name of its patron. Bearing the name of St.Denis affirmed the basilica’s status as a sacred and legitimate high place of worldly and otherworldly power. St. Denis was a saint intricately tied to the founding narratives of Paris. Over the centuries, the local saint had gained mythical status – including him being linked to the Greek biblical figure, Dionysius, one of the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth’s first century movement (It is unlikely that they are the same person as this would make St Denis close to two centuries years old, judging by the years during which he lived).
What is clear is that he was a revered Christian figure who had died for his faith, along with his fellow believers. He actually is one of an elite of ‘cephalophores’ saints – those whose heads were cut off but they actually retain enough consciousness to carry their own heads: Denis is said to have carried his own head, preaching a sermon from the ‘mount of martyrs’ (Montmartre) to the current site of the eponymous basilica where he is said to have died.
The name of St. Denis lent credibility to the basilica and its royal benefactors. For royal families dating back to the Merovingians of 6th Century, St. Denis’ name was a powerful force and resource. His name imbued those who associated with it cultural capital to maintain power in a society that prized the sacred. Indeed, in an age where Church and Crown sustained their temporal power by demonstrating their power in the world to come, the ‘brand’ of St. Denis was invaluable.
Today, a careful walk through the basilica offers an interesting ‘visual’ to this past age.
The stained glass windows communicate various episodes in religious and political history – scandal and sacred moments alike; the overwhelming Gothic architecture offers insight into the physical tools (stone and sand) of choice used by Church and Crown to assert their message and retain a hold over souls, bodies – and pockets(?). The space of the basilica lays this political system bare. One could – should – approach St Denis as a text, a discourse.
As one walks through the basilica, there is the striking poignance of the presence of bodies of several royals laid to rest here – mostly thanks to efforts in the aftermath of the French revolution to reestablish a royal presence here.
The names, monuments, and language used to describe events and people offer fascinating insight into how royal power was conceived, and how closely it was tied to religious ideas of talent and ability. Being a talented ruler lay not so much in delivering results such as economic growth but rather in scoring divine points through piety. As such, the basilica is filled with references to the high virtues of the buried monarchs – some surprisingly named as such. (It should also be said the question of what makes a good French leader is still very much alive).
The architecture’s grandeur itself is a statement of power: overpowering …. and… intimate. Intimate, for a lack of a better word: It is overpowering to the extent that it is a puzzling, towering architectural feat: how was this conceived? And without computer software? How did the illiterate masses of the middle ages view this – as the work of superior beings to be held in awe, divinely appointed overlords? The overpowering architecture that empasized distance of the ‘insignificant’ from church and from may have also evoked a more ‘intimate’ reaction: Surely it did provoke reflection in its observers on their own internal make up, and their distance from magnificent grandeur. I imagine people asking of themselves: “Why am I unable to soar to such heights?” Onlookers of the basilica may have seen it from a distance, adding to their general sense that they were living in a world that they could never master. That such a building represented divine, distant transcendent power hitting close to home as much as it crushed its observers seems plausible to this blogger.
Within the building, there are interesting little ‘visuals’, small details embedded into the fabric of the church about its former context – for example, one can find traces of insight into the ideas that drove the economy that supported the this grand piece of architecture. Indeed, small mosaics contain images of the diligent, mostly happy (it seems) agricultural lives of people in the former abbe and beyond. One of the stained glass windows, however, seems to capture an image of an arrest – perhaps for not paying agricultural taxes, judging from the stained glass window.
There are also images and texts that tell us about international relations of the time. This blogger four it interesting to have bumped into a few Scottish names, a few Armenian ones, and some Italian, Spanish, Polish, ones too. Then there were scenes from the Crusade and language that would be completely politically inappropriate in todays secular republic.
The latin and old French texts in the Basilica is also interesting and at times funny. The basilica is an entertaining read if one takes the time to scour through the name lists, and descriptions and the exaggerations deployed to describe monarchy. It is also plausible that those who may have composed some of the texts in the basilica in the late 18th Century still believed royal power would return. They certainly do not write in the language of the defeated.
One is left wondering, however, about how exactly labour was organised to build this structure: we gain some view of the abbey’s economy and that of the region, yet there is a silence in its fabric about those who brought it into existence. This silence is revealing. It speaks to the invisibility of labouring classes, an inefficient economic order that only legitimized the few over the many. (This is not to say republicanism and the present model is different or better).
In short, St. Denis offers a rich text and visual of the past: its economics, politics, religious and cultural contexts. It also offers some insight into the international relations of the time. It is not only an impressive piece of architecture, it is to be savoured, and read like a text. The silences speak as much as the presences. The use of colour, the inscription of words and images into stone, and the maximisation of windows, communicate high and low points in history and serve as a lasting way of visualising the past.
A nagging question that lingers after this visit to the Basilica is whether we, in an age of computers and disposal knowledge, will leave durable traces of our present civilisation? Does our digital and ‘cloud’ based culture present new challenges to leaving similar visual traces and metaphors of our age? What exactly are we producing today that can mark space in a sustainable way for future generations to savour? Are we no longer as good at metaphor as these masterful minds who built this basilica were?