Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dead French kings

We needed something to do on Saturday that wasn't work. So we decided to go to St-Denis, home of the basilica where all the French kings since Clovis (who died in 511, during the late Northern Wei) are buried. Like many medieval churches, it was built on the foundations of several older establishments: in this case, the first site was a Gallo-Roman cemetery where St. Dionysus (later Denis), the legendary first bishop of Paris, was said to have been buried after his martyrdom on the hill (Montmartre) overlooking Paris. The story goes that after being beheaded, he picked up his head, tucked it under his arm, and marched north to the site of the present basilica before dropping dead at last. The ancient cemetery was larger than the current footprint of the basilica, which is the largest of the churches that have stood on the site, such that when they excavated a nearby garden, they found the fifth-century coffin of Queen Arnegunde, who was buried with a number of garnet brooches and belt buckles that resemble those from Sutton Hoo in England.

It is possible to visit the crypt of the basilica, part of which incorporates the crypt and foundation of the fourth-century church that appears to have been the original Christian building on the site. Legend has it that the first church dedicated to St. Denis was built by St. Geneviève, the famous patron of Paris, but this is supposed to have happened in 525, after she famously averted the invasion of the Huns under Attila, so if she really was involved it was probably in a renovation or rededication.

Crockets on the south transept archway.

The really famous architectural work at St-Denis was of course that done in the early twelfth century by the famous Abbot Suger, “abbé et homme politique” of the reign of Kings Louis VI and VII. Suger is famous for having laid the foundations of the Gothic style of architecture, pointy arches and all. He oversaw the planning and initial construction of the present basilica, although it was not completed until the thirteenth century. It was St. Louis (King Louis IX), at that point, who turned the building into the royal mausoleum, as well, commissioning sarcophagi and tomb effigies for the French kings who had preceded him, going back several centuries to the first Louis (Clovis). (This explains, among other things, why Pepin the Short doesn’t look particularly short, and why he’s wearing fashions that would have been way ahead of his time.) Suger himself can still be seen at the feet of the Virgin Mary in a pane of twelfth-century stained glass that still survives in one of the apsidal chapels.

Pepin and Bertha, in their twelfth-century effigies.

Nearly all the French kings since then have been entombed at St-Denis, and there are spectacularly over-the-top marble catafalques and biers bearing the images of everyone from Henri IV to Marie Antoinette. Not surprisingly, I preferred the crypt, with its weighty Romanesque stonework and homely historiated capitals. On the latter, the figures are arranged in the arched spaces of a little colonnade, but the sculptor has a tendency to “break the frame” - as when one monk reaches out to clasp the hand of the monk in the next niche, or when a priest leans out past his columns to whack a surprised-looking demon with a stick. (The crypt was too dark for our little camera, and the pictures I took didn’t come out well at all.) Just under the altar is the original crypt of the Gallo-Roman chapel, which looks like a half-finished archaeological site with limestone coffins and mismatched stonework stretching back into the dusty gloom.

This is a detail of the remaining original statuary on the basilica facade, a series of roundels depicting the Labors of the Twelve Months.

Leaving the basilica, we stopped for late lunch at a cafe, wondering what to do next. There were signs for a “musee d’histoire et d’art” and we decided to investigate. The museum, it turns out, is located in a disused Carmelite convent that once housed Soeur Marie de France, the sister of Louis XIV. As a result, it has an extremely fancy eighteenth-century chapel beside a plainish earlier cloister and residential complex. Within the cloister, exposed hand-hewn beams contrasted with plastered and white-painted walls on which moralizing quotations had been painted in a scholastic hand (“Find Christ in your sisters, and treat them as you would treat Him;” “My yoke is easy and My burden is light;” that sort of thing).

The museum itself is charmingly eccentric. The first room we entered was an exhibition of the tools and paraphernalia associated with the Carmelite establishment’s function as a hospital for local people. There was a fully fitted-out eighteenth-century apothecary room with faux-Chinese blue and white jars, and cases of mortar-and-pestle sets, scales, surgical tools, and other terrifying objects. Having finished looking at this stuff, it appeared that we had run out of museum, which was perplexing since Arnegunde’s jewels were supposed to be kept there, and certainly a history of St-Denis that started with Louis XIV would be leaving quite a lot out. But we could find nothing else but a chinoiserie armoire and what looked like a contemporary artwork meditating on the role of the sisters of the convent as caretakers of the village.

The rest of the museum, it turned out, was along another arm of the cloister, and did contain wonderful exhibits of objects of everyday life excavated from the village center. There was everything from leather shoes and a cap woven from byssus (“sea silk”) to coins, pottery, and a wonderful collection of works-in-progress from a medieval workshop that produced bone rosaries. These were oddly interspersed with contemporary artworks by local people that responded to the history of the place. My favorite of these was a tin basin of water placed on a mirror, so that the legend “As I have washed your feet, so must you wash each other’s feet” (in French), painted in reverse on the outside of the basin, was reflected in the mirror. This was accompanied by two large bars of translucent pink soap cast in the shape of a pair of feet. Upstairs, in the nuns’ dormitoria, were exhibits of objects, personal possessions, clothing, and paintings relating to the lives of the Carmelite nuns, again interspersed with modern works. At the end of that floor were several rooms installed with Art Nouveau and Art Deco furniture apparently designed and made in St-Denis, and on the third floor was an entire exhibition dedicated to the Commune of 1871 and the St-Denis Communards.

St-Denis itself is usually described as an industrial suburb in the process of reinventing itself, which has become much less depressed since the national stadium of France was relocated there. It is much more African and Near Eastern than Paris proper, and on Saturday the market square was full of people selling clothing that catered to local tastes and immigrant populations (burnooses and the long coats-with-trousers that one sees many Muslim women wearing; headscarves by the yard and then some; as well as bluejeans, skirts, underwear, synthetic purses, luggage, batteries, and cheap electronics). It was awesome. People talk about St-Denis as if the influx of immigrants represents a contact between East and West that the medieval town never saw. But those Labors of the Months on the thirteenth-century facade are decorated with pearl-roundel borders:


derived from Sassanian Persian textile models of the kind that were being traded to Europe as early as the time of Charlemagne. The same border exactly is seen on sixth- to ninth-century Chinese Buddhist shrines like that of Bhiksu Huicheng at the Guyang cave at Longmen, which is dated around 502.

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