Cathédrale de Saint-Denis

Photo by Hubert.

Cathédrale de Saint-Denis is part of the Tentative list of France in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

Saint-Denis Cathedral is considered a major work in the development of Gothic style. In the choir of Saint-Denis, the typical elements - ribbed vaults, pointed arches and high pillars - were combined for the first time. The cathedral was also the burial place of almost all French kings and queens from the 10th century until the French Revolution. Saint-Denis is one of the largest collections of funerary sculpture in the world.

Map of Cathédrale de Saint-Denis

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The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.

Community Reviews

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Caspar Dechmann

Switzerland - 29-Nov-23 -

Cathédrale de Saint-Denis (T) by Caspar Dechmann

When you take the relatively short way from the centre of Paris to Saint-Denis you are not sure if you really went the right way. You are still very much in Paris but the quarter is rather poor and and as a caucasian north European you feel like a stranger among a largely arab crowd. Street vendors enhance the exotic feeling. When you stand in front of the building the doubts are not resolved: The asymmetrical facade with just one tower looks rather clumsy and unfinished despite the beautiful portals. The modern arge square in front does not help the impression. 

And what a difference once you enter: One of the most important buildings in European history with the first choir that resolved the walls into windows. When I visited the weather was cloudy and dark but you could still get an impression of the light effects. But I definitely have to return there once with sunshine. If you follow the history of the early gothic buildings this is the key monument and Abbé Suger its great and interesting hero. If you look closer you find that the whole area of the Île-de-France was a laboratory for a new style and it is pivotal to put it in the context of the other great churches that were build around the same time in the are: the church St-Martin-des-Champs in Downtown Paris, the Cathedral Saint-Étienne in Sens (strangely also with an asymmetrical facade), probably contemporary with St. Denis,  and the Cathedrals of Senlis, Noyon and Laon. The latter were planned as cathedrals, are a bit later but larger and probably more unified then Saint-Denis. Perhaps a serial approach would make more sense here in regard of the churches role in the birth of the Gothic style. 

But the other and possibly even greater claim to greatness is the royal necropolis: You can visit dozens of royal tombs starting from the 10th century! This is not only an extraordinary artistic time travel but equally a trip though changing ideas about tombs and death: Many of the old royal tombs are surprisingly small and modest: Just a body laying on a bed, to their feet mostly animals (lions and dragons for the gentlemen and dogs for the ladies), nice gowns and simple attributes like crosses and swords. In some eras the dead were portrayed sleeping with closed eyes in other times looking to heaven with the eyes wide open. I assume they wanted to face god without pomp and vanity as human beings. 

But there also more elaborate tombs: among the older the grave of Dagobert stands out: He was the Merovingian king from the 7th century who made Paris his capital and he was so important that his tomb was remade in the 13th century in gothic style. The most stunning tombs are from the renaissance: here the dead were sculpted twice on two levels: on the lower level they are very realistically and miserably shown as dead or dying bodies, often almost naked, on the upper level they are shown in full royal garment praying, expecting to be taken to the heavens. I think the most impressive was the tomb of Louis XII and Anne de Bretagne which is additionally surrounded by several allegorical figures. Newer but very lifelike are also the statues of Louis XIV and Marie-Antoinette. 

On the lower level of the church you find a huge ossuary with all the kings intertwined: in the french revolution all the tombs were emptied and only under Napoleon were they brought back but the couldn't be identified anymore. There you find also a strange basement with broken sarcophagi that looks like an archeological roman site. 

This site is not only one of the most important sites for the history of france and for the gothic style but a probably world wide unique collection to royal tombs over such a long period. Their modesty doesn't diminish their artistic value and their value for the history of ideas. It shows especially how the ideas about death and resurrection have changed over the centuries. If have the historic and artistic knowledge to appreciate the different aspects of this site you can easily spend hours here.  But I think there was also a decent audio guide available. 

If you compare it to Roskilde, the danish royal necropolis, it is the much better site: It spans a much longer time and the tombs are of a higher artistic level and all built in way that they harmonize with each other despite the stylistic changes. The beauty and the historic importance of the church should remove any doubt that this would be a great contribution for the list. 

Jean Lecaillon

France - 20-Aug-22 -

Cathédrale de Saint-Denis (T) by Jean Lecaillon

I lived around 8 years in St Denis and I can say a lot of things about it.

I think this site is very important and should be inscribed to the list. I know people are tight with this idea, because of too many christian sites already inscribed or whatever. But in fact this cathedral is largely more important than all the gothic cathedrals. I would be agree deleting Amiens, Bourges or Speir cathedrals to let the place to this cathedral.

I'm French and I know well our History and the standing of this place.

St Denis is not the most impressive cathedral in France, but it is the origin of the gothic architecture as you can read it for example in the "Pillars of the Earth" of Ken Follett. It's a really good novel to understand the importance of St Denis for France and UK in particular.

The royal city was a very rich place during the Middle Age. Now, it's the most important necropolis in Europe, nothing less.

The Saint who gave his name to the cathedral is one of the most famous Saint in our western culture, due to his particular biography. Decapitated, he took his head in his hands and walked several kilometers before finally falling at the current location of the cathedral. That's how his statue is very recognizable in the catholic churches: a man carrying his head in his hands. 

Culturally, St Denis stayed also in the french popular memories. A popular song named "Auprès de ma blonde" places St Denis with other rich and important places you know well : Notre Dame and Versailles. Chorus: "Je donnerais Versailles Paris et Saint-Denis Les tours de Notre Dame...".

In any case, if you are not conviced, be reassured, the inscription is not for tomorrow. There are politic points today not compatible with a such registration. The municipality is communist and doesn't pay attention to the Heritage. They prefer creation of social housings, already too numerous in the city, rather than supporting an application to the Unesco list. It could give attractiveness to st denis and it's not an option for the municipality, due to electoral reasons. Social mix is missing.

I conctacted the Municipality, and I can ensure you that today the project is totally abandoned.

Thibault Magnien

Belgium, France - 21-Feb-17 -

Cathédrale de Saint-Denis (T) by Thibault Magnien

The basilica of Saint Denis, in the immediate suburbs of Paris, is a masterpiece of religious architecture and has been an artistic achievement and model throughout the centuries. The place has been the resting place of numerous French monarchs, as exemplified by its numerous sculpted tombs.

Larry Perkins

USA - 05-Dec-09 -

I agree with the other reviewer. St Denis should be given world heritage status because of its influence on the architecture of western Europe. While not as imposing as Chartres or Notre Dame de Paris, it is elegant and well worth the effort to get there.

Kevin Verboven

Belgium - 02-Jun-09 -

what can I say about this site? Well to start that in my eyes it totally deserves world heritage status. It is another cathedral but a very beautifull one. It's also one of the earliest (perhaps the first?) gothic church in the world. I walked in on a very sunny day and the stained windows light up beautifully.

What makes this cathedral truelly special however are the funerary monuments of the french kings. I've never seen such a big collection of royal funerary monuments put together. What I understand from Saint Denis history is that all the french kings from the 6th century were buried here (also Jeanne D'arc achieved sainthood here). During the revolution the graves got destroyed (except some saved for la gloire de la france) and all the royal skeletons were thrown in one big pit. They never managed to sort them out so all the bones remain as a mish mash in the pit. Which is supposed to be highlighted by name plates. I think I saw these plates in the crypt but I'm not certain.

Amongst the funerary monuments are those from Marie-Antoinette and Clovis I (king of the franks). Also an interesting sight is the preserved heart of the boy who would have become King Louis XVII if it weren't for the revolution. Apparently they wanted to throw his body in a mass grave, but a doctor cut out his heart and preserved it, it was found in 1978 and positively identified with DNA and placed in saint denis in 2004.

All in all I can highly recommend a visit to this place. It's quite easily to reach from Paris with the metro (you need to have a 3-zones card). Though it does take about a half hour cause the cathedral is a bit out of the city center.

Full Name
Cathédrale de Saint-Denis
Religious structure - Christian
1996 Added to Tentative List

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Cathédrale de Saint-Denis (T)
WHS 1997-2024