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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2

Architecture and Sculpture at the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis

          Introduction: Rebuilt and enlarged approximately four times from the 7th through 13th centuries, the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis realized its unique status as pioneer in Gothic architecture under the innovative guidance of Abbot Suger (1122-1151). Suger's memoirs, chronicling these renovations of the Abbey Church between 1137-1144, form one of the most important documents of the Middle Ages in providing a first-hand look at the transition from the Late Romanesque to Gothic architecture in France. Above the Romanesque crypt with its massive walls and semi-circular arches supported by low, thick columns, the new choir built under Suger's direction formed a double ambulatory with pointed arches and ribbed vaulting (fig.1). This lighter, skeletal design permitted increased elevation and freed the walls from a primary load-bearing capacity, allowing extensive use of stained glass windows in a higher, more spacious, and light-filled interior. Sculptures on the church portals, meanwhile, developed into a level of figurative sophistication not seen since Late Antiquity (fig.3)

          Along with its role as the birthplace of Gothic architecture, the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis also continued as a protectorate of the monarchy and as the burial site of French kings spanning from the Merovingian era (AD 447-751;) to the later Bourbon dynasty (1589-1789 and 1814-1830). The rich sculptural art of the church includes both striking Biblical figures created during the Late Romanesque and Early Gothic era of Suger, and a notable series of Late Gothic tomb effigies of French rulers.

[Fig.1: Spacious double ambulatory of Saint-Denis, enlarged by Abbot Suger, with the uniform ribbed vaulting (1140-1144) (photo: Athena Review)].

          The Legend of St. Denis and creation of the Abbey Church: According to a 9th century Carolingian legend, St. Denis, the first bishop of Lutetia (Roman Paris), was beheaded around AD 250 by Roman soldiers in Montmartre, but then walked away with his severed head in his hands beyond the center of Paris before dying. Various 5th-9th century legends say he was buried in a clandestine ceremony after his martyrdom near the Roman town of Catolacus, about 11 km north of Paris. Rusticus and Eleutherius, companions of St. Denis referred to as the "Holy Martyrs" by Abbot Suger, may have been buried with him.

          In about AD 475, St. Denis was reburied in a Gallo-Roman cemetery at the eventual site of the monastery named for him. St. Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, constructed the first church here to commemorate the life of St. Denis, whose burial site had begun to attract many pilgrims. This small Merovingian church was enlarged between 630-638 by Dagobert I, the official founder of Saint-Denis, who also established a Benedictine monastery to regulate pilgrimages.

          During the Carolingian era, the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis became one of the most renowned in France. Abbot Fulrad substantially rebuilt the church in 750-775. Many of Fulrad's construction methods such as the piers of the Carolingian nave hark back to ancient Roman models (Bony 1983). On February 24, 754 Pope Stephen III consecrated Pepin the Short (714-768), at the abbey in the presence of his wife and sons, Charlemagne (the future Holy Roman Emperor) and Carloman. In this church, a martyrium, or crypt holding the remains of saints and martyrs as a shrine for prayer, was also added under the choir.

          When Suger became abbot of Saint-Denis in 1122, he began plans to renovate the old late 8th century Carolingian Abbey Church, which had become too small to hold the entire congregation on the main religious feast days. Unlike St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who believed that secular persons should be excluded from the house of God, Suger wished to welcome as great a crowd as possible. The abbey had also gained an increasingly prominent position in France as a result of its close ties with the French monarchy. Suger's role as an advisor to Louis VI, the Fat (r.1108-1137) and Louis VII (r.1137-1180) as well as his appointment as regent during the Second Crusade (1147-1149) strengthened the position of the Abbey Church.

          The Foire du Lendit, the largest market for merchants in France, was held in Saint-Denis, greatly improving the church's financial situation. Granted royal recognition by King Louis VI in 1109, this market supported the development of a town around the abbey (Bussmann 1980). In particular, a donation of royal incomes from the lendit market by King Louis VI, a long-standing friend of Abbot Suger, facilitated plans for renewing the Abbey Church.


           Exterior of Saint-Denis: The innovative architectural style of the west façade at Saint-Denis (fig.2), built between 1135-1140, was borrowed from Norman churches such as St. Étienne in Caen. The two bays with two flanking towers and chapels in the upper stories were consecrated on July 9, 1140. Although the massive façade with its strong abutments and battlements upon the third level belongs to Norman and Romanesque architecture and is somewhat austere, its tri-partite arrangement would become the formula for most later Gothic churches (Williamson 1995). This involved three sculptured portals, three levels with different kinds of openings, and a crowning rose window flanked by two towers (only one was ever built at Saint-Denis).

          The entrances, with their free-standing jamb figures connecting the three portals to a visual and iconographic scheme, were much more complex than those of Romanesque church façades. While, unfortunately, most of the original sculptural decoration at Saint-Denis was destroyed during the French Revolution, it appears that the twenty column figures of Old Testament kings, queens, and prophets were originally attached to the jambs or upright support of the façade portals, eight along the central or Last Judgment portal, and six each along the north and south portals. The creation of a royal portal as well as the introduction of a statue, most likely Christ, on the trumeau or the central stone pillar of a two-leaved portal had a powerful influence on later portal decorations.

          Surviving sculptural fragments include three heads in the Musée national du Moyen Âge (former Musée de Cluny; fig.3) as well as several original heads of apostles and kings from the Last Judgment (central) portal at the Musée du Louvre in Paris. These Old Testament figures not only represented early protagonists of Christendom, but also alluded to the divine right of the French rulers, following in the succession of biblical kings.

[Fig.2: West façade of the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis (ca.1135-1140) (photo:Athena Review)].

          Suger also started the tradition of employing craftsmen from outside of the Île de-France. The more ornate sculptural fragments contrast sharply with the more primitive Romanesque art found in the Paris region at that time. For example, the head of a queen from the central portal, possibly the Queen of Sheba, shares stylistic parallels with a sculpture of Eve's head at Autun Cathedral in Burgundy, attributed to the sculptor Giselbertus. Both share the same deep boring of their pupils, and 'worm-like' strands of hair, and can thus be dated to around 1135-1140. In contrast, the jamb figures of the north portal (ca. 1130-1135) resemble those found at the St. Étienne Cathedral in Toulouse (Languedoc), which have a similar posture with crossed legs, as well as decorative jeweled borders (Williamson 1995).

          The tympanum of the central portal, which closely resembles the earlier Romanesque style, was reserved for the dramatic theme of the Last Judgment, one of the most popular in Gothic cathedrals. Christ enthroned is flanked by the apostles and the Virgin Mary; below, the dead ascend from their coffins. The archivolts or decorated arch of the portal are filled with the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse, and the doorposts with the Wise and Foolish Virgins - all to become standard themes in Gothic cathedrals. Fragments of two conjoined heads of the apostles and the two elders, now at the Louvre, reveal the Gothic concern for sculptural volume in the heavy treatment of the flesh and the typical feature of thick rimmed eyes. This portal also contains the original 12th century carvings of the Dove and the Lamb, as well as God and Christ.

          The north portal's tympanum was originally decorated with a mosaic ordered by Suger, which possibly depicted the Coronation of the Virgin (Williamson 1995). Suger might have been under the influence of the great reformer Abbot Desiderius' activities at the Abbey of Montecassino (about 50 km south of Rome), which explains this unusual application of mosaic to the tympanum. Suger's mosaic at Saint-Denis, nevertheless, remained the only Gothic example in France.

          The north doorway now contains a 19th century relief of the Martyrdom of St. Denis as well as a statue of the Virgin on the trumeau. Here St. Denis is portrayed in his final hours holding his decapitated head, near the original 12th century carvings of the signs of the Zodiac on the doorjambs. The south portal illustrates the Last Communion of St. Denis, with the original heads replaced in the 19th century. A sculpture of St. Denis, carved in a fully developed naturalistic style of the early 13th century, was once located on the gable. Recovery of the sculptural head of Moses and a prophet (fig.3) from the south portal, now in the Musée national du Moyen Âge at the Hôtel de Cluny, suggests that another scene might have once occupied this space. The Labours of the Month on the south portal's doorjambs date from 12th century.

[Fig.3: Head of a prophet, from a column on the south portal of the west façade at Saint Denis, AD 1137-1140 (photo: Athena Review)].

         The portal of the north transept, known as the Porte des Valois (fig.4) after the destroyed tomb of the Valois dynasty, also contained a richness of sculpture, now preserved at the Louvre. Although carved between 1160-1170, this portal was not erected until the 13th century. The sculptural program included thirty crowned figures in the voussoirs (truncated wedges making up the arch), framing the scene of the Martyrdom of Saint-Denis. Six statues of kings, variously interpreted as the elders of the Apocalypse, the kings of France, or vassals of St. Denis, occupied the door embrasures. These are comparable to the slightly later series of the Kings of Judah from the west façade of Notre-Dame. In contrast to the statues of the royal portal, however, there is at Saint-Denis a much more delicate treatment of the flesh with narrow almond-shaped eyes and slender foreheads.

          Saint-Denis held several cloisters, at least one of which contained an interesting variety of Gothic art. The main cloister, constructed sometime after Suger's death and destroyed ca. 1751, has yielded the only remaining intact column sculpture of a king from Saint-Denis. Now preserved at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, this intricately carved figure parallels sculptures on the west façade at Chartres. The close resemblance to the north transept statues, moreover, suggests that both belonged to the same workshop. The identity of this figure may have been inscribed on the destroyed scroll that he once held. Other remains from Saint-Denis preserved at the Louvre include a fragment with the heads of three men carved with characteristic Gothic realism, and a capital decorated with interwoven foliage and four harpies. Two abaci adorned with the Corinthian acanthus leaves dating to the middle of the 12th century, as well as the base of twin columns and a double capital, may have also belonged to the cloisters.

          Apart from the sculptural innovations at Saint-Denis, architectural additions made by Abbot Suger also initiated several trends of the Gothic tradition. The former oculus (small circular window without tracery) on the west façade served as a precursor of the later Gothic rose window, one of the great innovations in western architectural history. When Pierre de Montreuil rebuilt the naves and transepts in the 13th century, the rose window occupied the north and south transepts as well as the open triforium below. In 1258, Notre-Dame of Paris replicated the beautiful design of Saint-Denis' rose window, and incorporated the story of the Apocalypse in the eighty-six panels of stained glass in the upper chapel. The north transept was originally intended to contain two towers, but due to cessation of work, the second tower was never added. The upper story on the north side contains other innovative features such as double span flying buttresses (ca. 1230), which allow for the increased height of the nave.

[Fig.4: Porte des Valois, illustrating the Martyrdom of Saint-Denis, ca.1160-1170 (photo: Athena Review)].     

          In contrast to the innovations of the west side, the exterior of the east end reflects a greater combination of Romanesque and Gothic features. The more conservative apse (ca. 1144) follows the Romanesque style with rounded windows and relieving, heavy arches around the crypt, where as the stained glass windows of the chapel belong more to the Gothic period. At the time of Suger's death in 1151, the two ends of the church were still joined by 8th century construction.


Bony, J. 1983. French Gothic Architecture of the 12th and 13th centuries. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, University of California Press.

Büchsel, M. 1997. Die Geburt der Gotik. Abt Sugers Konzept für die Abteikirche Saint-Denis. Freiburg im Breisgau. Rombach.

Bußmann, Klaus. 1980. 1980. Paris und die Ile de France. Die Metropole und das Herzland Frankreichs. Von der antiken Lutetia bis zur Millionenstadt. Köln, DuMont.

Colboune, T.F. Morgan et al. 2003. Eyewitness Travel Guides: France. London, DK Publishing.

Williamson, P. 1995. Gothic Sculpture. New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

The above text appears on pages 30-32 of The Abbey Church of Saint-Denis: Birthplace of Gothic Art and Architecture in Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.

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