Gothic: Basilica of Saint-Denis

Gothic's birthplace

Today we are going to discover where the Gothic style was born: the Basilica of Saint-Denis

Let’s start!

Basilica of Saint-Denis_outisde_gothic introduction
NAME Basilica of Saint-Denis
LOCATION Saint-Denis, France
YEAR 1136–1270
TYPE Architecture
DIMENSIONS Lenght 108m (354ft), width 39m (127ft), max height 86m (282ft)

Hi and welcome back to our discovering on Gothic Art!

In the previous post I promised we would have looked at a beautiful example of what we learnt about Gothic Architecture.

And here we are with the Basilica of Saint-Denis (Basilique royale de Saint-Denis in French). A large abbey church in the city of Saint-Denis, now a northern suburb of Paris. I picked this Church, not only for the beauty, but also because it is the first building where we can see the first use of all the elements of Gothic architecture.

Church History

Actually the Church was built many centuries before to keep Saint Denis’ relics. Reason why it is a Basilica. The Saint is a patron-saint of France, so a very important religious figure and the Church should show this importance.

That was the reason why, in the 12th century, Abbot Suger wanted to rebuild portions of the abbey church using innovative structural and decorative features. It is important to emphasize that Suger was not the architect, as was often assumed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the patron. In fact it is clear that two distinct architects, or master masons, were involved in the 12th-century changes. Both remain anonymous but their work can be distinguished because of the different styles.

The works in fact were realized in two phases:

  1. the first one on the west front (circa 1135-1140) with many Gothic innovations, but still close on many details to the Romanesque style;
  2. the second one on the choir (circa 1140-1144) where we can identify all the Gothic elements typical of the Northern Cathedrals.

The Basilica

The west front is the Basilica’s façade. It is 34 meters (112 ft) wide and has three portals. The central one larger than those either side, reflecting the relative width of the central nave and lateral aisles. This clear vertical division in three parts is going to be a common element in the development of Gothic architecture and a marked departure from the Romanesque.

Basilica of Saint-Denis façade, Gothic Cathedral
Basilica of Saint-Denis façade


Talking about the façade: there is something that is not common to see on a Gothic Cathedral…can you find it? The solution in the interactive image below

Another innovative Gothic element is the towers. Yes: “towers” because originally they were 2. But the one on the left, the tallest one with 86 meters/282 feet (properly called North tower), was dismantled in 1846 because damaged by a storm.

Basilica of Saint-Denis by Félix Benoist (drawing 1844-1845)
Basilica of Saint-Denis by Félix Benoist (1844-1845)

In this illustration of Felix Benoist we can see how the Church looked like before the accident.

The rose window at the centre of the upper story of the west portal was also innovative and influential. Although these windows were common also on the west facades of Italian Romanesque churches. This was probably the first example of a rose window within a square frame, which was to become a dominant feature of the Gothic facades of northern France. In particular because enriched with beautiful stained glass windows.

And we can see the importance of the windows and light in the choir.

Basilica of Saint-Denis abside with stained glass windows
Basilica of Saint-Denis abside

Architecture solutions

Abbot Suger wanted to fill the chatedral with light and he was able to achieve that beautiful result with the wisely use of pointed arches and ribbed vaults. These arches allow in fact to reach greater heights and, with the ribbed vaults, the weight is channeled to the ground along the pillars and columns. That means that the walls can be really thin or even absent, so that the spaces can be filled with windows.

To contrast the outwards thrusts, architects built many flying buttresses outside the walls that are another key feature in the Gothic architecture. Flying buttresses that are not just a structural necessary element, but are used as external decoration with an impact on the internal definition of the cathedral’s spaces.

The result is unbelievably beautiful and the stained windows are just the final step to achieve the height and light that Abbot Suger wanted to reach. We need to remember in fact the importance of the windows, not only to give more light, but as message for the churchgoers! Every window is full of symbols and meaning, so a foundation of the Gothic communication, not just a decoration.

What the architects built here influenced the entire Gothic architecture reaching levels that were unbelievable to think. Stay curious and let’s discover more together in the next posts!

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Learn more about the Basilica of Saint-Denis with an HD video!

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