Saint Denis: A Gem in a Socket

Nik Pontasch / Dr. Sarah Jane Murray / French Art & Architecture / 8 February 2011

Although perhaps a preliminary detail, the intentionality of construction at the basilica of Saint Denis is a striking feature. As the website points out, the region of Saint Denis is surrounded on every side by unique geography: running waters, peat marshes, calcareous soil, quarries, and sandy hills. Due to the many rivers and tributaries encircling the region, much of the land was very marshy. As the website points out, there were several plateaus which rose above the marshes, providing some of the better foundation sites for a structure of such magnitude. Because of this limited ideal building space, one of the only places to construct Saint Denis was atop a plateau above the Roman road leading to Rouen. As the website states, “The second elevation – where the basilica would be built – is a promontory that rises somewhat more to the east. Between these two elevations runs the gentle Montfort brook.” There is, of course, great Christian symbolic value with Saint Denis being a place of height also situated in the East. Also, much like Lattes and Lascaux, the existence of a church requiring so much time and resources proves the importance and desire for the citizenry to erect a place of worship and reverence – even though, (as came first to my mind), such a location would greatly befit a castle, which would have certainly profited from the tactical advantages of the terrain. Yet, instead of a siege of soldiers, Saint Denis had a flood of pilgrims; instead of a menacing moat, a gentle, welcoming stream encircling it; and instead of hot oils to ward off assailants, holy oils used to anoint, bless and sanctify. Again, the intentionality and careful thought brought into the construction of the basilica is astounding. In this respect, considering all of the geographical and political motives, the cathedral has a natural architectural beauty—what I would call a fit like a gem in a socket.
To elaborate a bit more on the symbolism of Saint Denis’ construction – the East is, of course, where the sun rises, and has strong symbolic ties in Christianity to resurrection (as the corpses in the necropolis beneath Saint Denis attest, all pointed East in their graves). Its position next to an important road also helped as Saint Denis established itself as an important site of pilgrimage. What seems exceptionally special about the location of Saint Denis, however, is that the allure of the site was not limited to Christians. According to the website, a Neolithic grave was also found on the grounds. It is a rather chilling fact that Saint Denis has been a place of reverence and burial for humans for tens of thousands of years—an idea which serves as a somber reminder of the many profound connections which have bonded humans for millennia.

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