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Height and Light at the Top of Paris

Just north of the city of Paris sits the oldest church in France, and one of the oldest churches in Christendom. If you have even the remotest interest in architecture or history, this is a must-see. For those of you who are fans, as I am, of The Pillars of the Earth, this basilica no doubt sounds familiar to you. St. Denis is the basilica by which Ken Follett’s hero, Jack Shareburg, is inspired.

Height and Light at the Top of ParisSt. Denis Basilica was built on the site where France’s first bishop and patron saint, Saint Denis, was buried. You’ve probably heard of the artsy hilltop neighborhood nearby, Montmartre. It’s the hill made famous by the Moulin Rouge and its bohemian inhabitants like Toulouse Lautrec. But did you know how Montmartre got its name? Montmartre translates to “Mount of the Martyr.” That martyr was St. Denis, who was beheaded on the hilltop, the highest point of the city.

Saint Denis then (as legend tells it) carried his own head to a site nearby, today’s location of the aptly named Basilica of St. Denis. A church has occupied the site since approximately the year of the martyrdom in 250. That’s a long time ago. Lots of history has been made on this land since then. A certain famous visitor of whom you’ve likely heard was Joan of Arc, who hung up her coat of arms here in 1429.

Saint Denis Basilica is the place where most of the French Kings and Queens have been buried over the centuries, so a trip to the necropolis is a chilling experience. Perhaps the most ghoulish relic is the case holding the heart of King Louis XVI’s and Marie Antoinette’s son.

But perhaps even more interesting is the Basilica of Saint Denis itself. The structure began to resemble its current form starting in the year 1140, and is the first known example of Gothic Architecture. It was built, unlike its heavy Romanesque predecessors, with the twin goals of height and light. Flying buttresses should support the structure from the outside, an intrepid Abbot declared, so that from the inside, the walls climb high and give the worshipper the impression of weightlessless. Formerly heavy walls should be pierced with colorful windows which shower the eyes with sunlight and color. The gaze of the worshipper should soar up to the vaulted roof, and beyond that, to the heavens. For the first time, the pioneering Abbot who oversaw the work on St. Denis declared that a house of worship should be a place that lifts the soul, not just impresses it with its weight and durability. The eyes should be looking upward, not on this earth.

For nothing more than a two dollar Metro ride, you can visit the basilica from any corner of Paris. It’s well worth the trip.

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