(Sorry…I’m a day ahead…)
Tomorrow is the memorial of St. Denis, bishop and martyr. You can read about him here:
Missionary to Paris, France. First Bishop of Paris. His success roused the ire of local pagans, and he was imprisoned by Roman governor. Martyred in the persecutions of Valerius with Saint Rusticus and Saint Eleutherius. Legends have grown up around his torture and death, including one that has his body carrying his severed head some distance from his execution site. Saint Genevieve built a basilica over his grave. His feast was added to the Roman Calendar in 1568 by Pope Saint Pius V, though it had been celebrated since 800.
So that legend is why he is often portrayed holding his head, as in the Paris subway near the Basilica of St. Denis, here:
The Basilica of St. Denis stands outside the usual tourist track in Paris, but was really one of the most memorable sites we visited in our month there. So absolutely worth the metro ride. It’s of great historical importance, first because it represents one of the first (if not the first) major expression of Gothic architecture, and secondly because of its role as the last resting place of the French monarchy.
The Abbey of Saint Denis was the burial site of the kings of France for centuries and has thus been referred to as the “royal necropolis of France.” All but three of the monarchs of France from the 10th century until 1789 have their remains here. The abbey church contains some fine examples of cadaver tombs.
The effigies of many of the kings and queens are on their tombs, but during the French Revolution, these tombs were opened by workers under orders from revolutionary officials. The bodies were removed and dumped in two large pits nearby.
Archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir saved many of the monuments from the same revolutionary officials by claiming them as artworks for his Museum of French Monuments.
Napoleon Bonaparte reopened the church in 1806, but the royal remains were left in their mass graves. Following Napoleon’s first exile to Elba, the Bourbons briefly returned to power. They ordered a search for the corpses of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, which were found on January 21, 1815 and brought to St. Denis and buried in the crypt.
So the Basilica today is repository of funerary imagery….Pepin the Short, the Bourbons….everyone. It’s fascinating.
The absolutely most intriguing statuary to me were the two or three sets of married monarchs whose monuments had two elements: the king and queen in full worldy regalia, and then, the two of them represented laid out completely nude…as they came into the world, and as they went back into the earth:
Louis XII and Anne of Brittany’s tomb is topped by images of them kneeling in prayer, fully dressed, but in a space below, we see them again, lying as in death, completely nude. It is a startling, sobering sight.
It’s also a sight that reminded me that living under the robes of any worldly honor, power or possession is a creature just like me. Only one king–gracefully born into that mortal flesh but wearing the crown of glory forever–deserves my worship, only one is truly Lord of my life now and for eternity.