The Basilique de Saint-Denis is a strange place. Originally a shrine built over the site to which Saint-Denis, a patron saint of Paris, supposedly carried his head after a 10-kilometer hike from his place of execution atop Montmartre, the site would eventually become, with some coaxing by Saint-Louis, the French royal necropolis, with nearly every ruler from the 10th century (I can now say that I’ve seen the gisant [effigy tomb] of Charles the Hammer) onward buried there.
Robespierre, in a fit of Terror-fuelled revolutionary fervor (or perhaps, more prosaically, simple grave-pissing), ordered that the tombs be cracked open and the corpses thrown in pits with quicklime. The bones, completely unidentifiable and unsortable, would be placed en masse in an ossuary during the Restoration, while Louis XVI’s and Marie-Antoinette’s bones would be plucked from Madeleine cemetery and re-interred in the new “Bourbon Crypt.”
It’s a strange history.
Today, what is regarded as the first example of gothic architecture sits in the town of Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris. Saint-Denis the banlieue (technically just a word for suburb, but now tinged with the negative connotation implying high concentrations of low-income housing projects) is a complete shithole, with various people I’ve talked to having expressed surprise that we’d be so bold as to venture up there, and even my French tutor having said that she’d avoid anywhere other than the cathedral itself.
There is a parallel (and a dichotomy) with Versailles here, but I’m still mulling it over, still unable to verbally articulate my thoughts on the entangled mess.
I wonder if Robespierre would be proud.