Basilica of Saint-Denis: The Cradle of Gothic Architecture

The Basilica of Saint-Denis is the earliest known example of Gothic architecture and provided a model for ecclesiastical structures throughout the Middle Ages.

Feb 2, 2021By Lisa de Luca, BA Fine Arts & Art Restoration
saint denis
The choir – view of double arcades and ambulatory at Saint-Denis; with Suger’s reconstructed main entrance (westwork) of Saint-Denis


By the early 12th century, France’s most significant royal abbey, Saint-Denis, was in disrepair.  As a major stop on pilgrimage routes and the burial place of nearly every French king, this was both a religious and political problem. An abbey of Saint-Denis’ stature represented not only the Church but the power of the French king. At a time when architecture was used to communicate strength and control to the masses, the decaying Saint-Denis disarmed the Church and politically diminished the potency of royal dominance. 


In 1122, a new Abbot was appointed to Saint-Denis, Suger. He prioritized the crumbling church building, the basilica, to renovate and in 1137 went to work to restore and glorify God and the king. Suger’s innovative application of his vision for Saint-Denis manifested into a profoundly revolutionary architectural aesthetic that united developing Romanesque and Norman features. Gothic architecture was born. 


History Of Saint-Denis

engraving of abbot suger
Engraving of Abbot Suger by Zacharie Heinse and François Bignon, 1690, via the French Ministry of Culture, Paris


Saint-Denis stands in what is now considered the northern suburbs of Paris and has been a destination for Christian pilgrims since 250 AD. That same year, as legend has it, the martyr St. Denis placed his decapitated head on the ground on which this Gothic monument now sits. 


The site evolved from a 5th-century shrine to St. Denis when, in the 7th century, the Frankish King Dagobert founded the Abbey of Saint-Denis. Dagobert had the martyr’s relics interred in the church building. Not long after Dagobert mandated that he be buried next to the body of the martyr. Saint-Denis grew in stature, becoming the royal abbey and royal mausoleum, guarding the regalia and the oriflamme, a crimson banner which accompanied the kings to battle. Church and State were intrinsically linked.  


replica of saint denis oriflamme
Replica of Saint-Denis oriflamme, via the School of Saint Cecile

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Thus, in 1122, Abbot Suger inherited an important royal abbey. Suger was well-connected, a statesman, and an influential confidant and advisor to King Louis VI (reigned 1108-1137). With Suger’s guidance and skilled advice to advance the king’s power, Louis VI expanded his reach by taking on the so-called robber barons, major landowners, and although vassals of the king acted outside of the law. From their castles, driven by greed and resisting the king’s authority, the robber barons would engage in criminal behavior. They also mobilized those in their employ to charge tolls for crossing their lands, rob pilgrims, cheat merchants, seize goods and cargo from ships and envoys, and loot churches and abbeys. 


With Suger’s assistance, Louis VI waged battle on the robber barons, wielding kingly power not seen before. Louis led his army around the country, bearing law and order, and repossessing properties at will. Louis was successful in controlling the robber barons and establishing the king’s authority with every level of French society. His successor, Louis VII, maintained this authority. Suger, keeping close to the new king, acted as an advisor as well as a matchmaker, and arranged the 1137 marriage between Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine.


eleanor of aquitaine
Eleanor of Aquitaine marrying Louis VII in 1137 and Louis VII departing on the Second Crusade in 1147, drawing from Les Chroniques de Saint-Denis, late 14th century, via the University of Iowa, Iowa City


Suger, and therefore Saint-Denis, were firmly entrenched in the livelihood of the crown. Even without the personal relationship, Suger enjoyed with the king, as abbot of a royal abbey, Suger had a fundamental responsibility to support him in his policies and governance. Suger’s closeness to the king intensified this responsibility. Suger fulfilled his commitments, but Saint-Denis, his domain, did not. 


As a literal, physical symbol of the Church and the monarchy’s authority, Saint-Denis was conspicuously failing at a time when the display of rule had taken on a heightened significance. The kings of France had only recently clenched their power over the robber barons. A prominent royal abbey like Saint-Denis was required to express the greatness of the intrinsically linked Crown and God. 


Abbot Suger’s renovation would be a major event with meaningful religious and political implications. 


The Birth Of Gothic Architecture

basilica of saint denis
Basilica of Saint-Denis, built in 1135, via Viator


Suger was a learned man and would have undoubtedly understood what could be achieved relative to revamping the church building. As abbot, Suger had access to a vast array of literary resources across a myriad of subjects, and money to spend on master masons and specialist artisans. 


In rehabilitating Saint-Denis to fulfill its role as a royal abbey, Suger harnessed theological philosophies and contemporary technologies that would ultimately create what we now call Gothic. 


It is believed Suger, like many clerics of the age, was a follower of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a 6th-century mystic that brought together Neoplatonic philosophy with Christian theology and mystical experience, and left extensive writings. A key belief of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite is that light is representative of divinity, thereby enabling deeper contemplation. Pseudo-Dionysius described God as ‘lumen’ (fire or the source of light); in its manifestation, light revealed God and was a unifying element. These writings were hugely influential. As we shall see, pervading light would become a hallmark of Gothic architecture.  


Additionally, advancements in architectural technologies allowed a great level of innovation.  For centuries, vaults and buttresses were employed to create monumental structures expressed in Roman, ByzantineNorman, and Islamic architectural characteristics. Saint-Denis would exhibit these critical load-bearing features in a completely new way, challenging previous architectural norms to create a revolutionary style and building capability.


romanesque architecture
Examples of Romanesque Architecture: Westwork of both the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Étienne, Caen, began 1067, via Britannica; and Abbey of Sainte-Trinité, Caen, began 1602, via Columbia University, New York


Suger’s vision of a more superior church, one that spoke to the formidability of God and king, would express itself intensely, exhibiting light, space, height, and ornamentation in ways not seen before. 


First Phase: Westwork, Ca. 1135–1140


“Thus we began with the former main entrance, dismantling a certain addition said to have been built by Charlemagne on a very worthy occasion, because his father, the Emperor Pepin, had ordered that he be buried outside that entrance, face down, for the sins of his father Charles Martel. As is obvious, we exerted ourselves, vehemently enlarging the body of the church, tripling the entrance and doors, and erecting tall, worthy towers.” – Abbot Suger


suger main entrance saint denis
Suger’s reconstructed main entrance (westwork) of Saint-Denis


Suger began the renovations with the westwork, the west-facing, main entrance of Saint-Denis. Understood to be from Charlemagne’s time, it was completely dismantled. The redesigned exterior was enlarged greatly, now measuring 34 meters (112 ft), going from one centrally located door to three portals, each with its own decorative tympanum. The central portal is larger than those at its sides, illustrating the relative width of the nave and side aisles. Arched window arcades feature above each portal, and across the façade, intrinsic decorative elements encourage the unity of design. Two towers were also planned (note only the south tower was built in Suger’s lifetime and the subsequent north tower was destroyed by a tornado in 1846).


This expansion and architectural treatment, and the addition of the two towers, were not in themselves innovative. However, the stylistic approach to the components of the westwork illustrates Suger’s novel vision and our first taste of Gothic architecture.  


The Facade 


Saint-Denis’ newly expanded westwork inherits Norman and Romanesque sensibilities of solidity and strength. Massive stone masonry exemplifies these preceding styles. And although adopted by Gothic, novel approaches were applied to create a more elegant and graceful style.   


Looking at Saint-Denis’ westwork, what is obvious is the clear delineation among the parts of the exterior.


westwork saint denis
Westwork’s four massive, sculpted buttresses; the extension of the buttresses is also seen from this angle, via the Society of Architectural Historians


Four massive, sculpted vertical buttresses separate the westwork’s three portals, becoming a key architectural feature in themselves. This is a departure from the Romanesque, while although buttresses are used, they are not a significant feature, are generally flat, and do not project greatly beyond the wall. Saint-Denis’ vertical buttresses are optically important, clearly fabricating sections of the westwork and separating each of the three portals dramatically. 


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Westwork’s string courses at Saint-Denis


The westwork also displays string courses to divide the portals from the window arcades; these string courses intersect and at points go over the massive buttresses. This design element reiterates the architectural divisions while at the same time enforcing unity across the westwork.




As part of the westwork, Suger’s three portals were the main entrance into Saint-Denis. These portals dominated the facade. Inherently this meant the construction and artistry of the portals were hugely important, as they were basically advertising spaces, used to relay significant messages from those that rule.


westwork portal saint denis
Westwork’s Portals at Saint-Denis


Suger created a new sculptural convention by displaying a series of Old Testament kings, queens, and prophets attached to columns that flanked each of the three portals. Called jamb statues, these figures reiterated the connection between the church and monarchy.  



drawings jamb statues bernard de montfaucon
Drawings of the jamb statues by Bernard de Montfaucon, from Les monuments de la monarchie Françoise, vol I, 1729, via Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris


Saint-Denis boasted twenty of these statues. The artistic approach to these statutes evolved the cramped Romanesque style to one more sympathetic with negative space, resulting in a clearer depiction of individual images. This allowed for a more coherent message to the viewer. This is not to be underestimated; Saint-Denis’ iconographical narrative of Biblical kings, queens, and prophets stood shoulder-to-shoulder, reflecting an evolution in France – the shoring up of centralized royal power with the validation of the Church. It confirms the divine right of the French monarchy.


head of an old testament king
The jamb statues have mostly been destroyed however a few examples survive: Head of an Old Testament King,1140, via  The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


This convention, a unified message across multiple portals emphasizing the interwoven relationship between Church and State, became a standard expression of proceeding Gothic builds. Chartres Cathedral, for example, exhibits a well-preserved westwork which was done within a decade of Saint-Denis.   


Unfortunately, many of these statue-columns have been destroyed, a number during the French Revolution. Fragments are on display at museums around the world including the Musée de Cluny and The Louvre.


The tympanum in the portals also displayed some additional novel artistic touches. The central tympanum exhibited the Last Judgement. Due to the popularity of Saint-Denis, this theme became one of the most used in Gothic architecture and art.


central tympanum last judgment saint denis
Central tympanum – the Last Judgement at Saint-Denis


A more remarkable example from Saint-Denis is the treatment featured in the northernmost tympanum. What was originally illustrated is debated – some believe it’s St. Denis’ history; others believe the Coronation of the Virgin. The image is now lost however we know it was done in mosaic, a medium not common in France at the time. ‘Contrary to modern custom’ is how Suger referred to the use of mosaic in his book, ‘…What Was Done During his Administration.’  Suger was well-traveled, and it believed he was inspired by the heavy use of mosaics used in places of worship in Italy. It is also believed Suger had Italian mosaicists do the work at Saint-Denis.  


north portal westwork
North portal, westwork; this portal was decorated with mosaic, now lost, via The Geographical Cure


The use of mosaic could also be put down to Suger’s desire to feature light throughout the restoration of Saint-Denis. The light refraction of the mosaic tesserae would undoubtedly reveal beauty and exhilaration to complement Suger’s belief that God and light were intrinsically linked.     


Rose Window 


Above the central main portal stands another example of Suger’s innovative vision, the westwork’s rose window. Dominating the upper elevations of the westwork, it sits within a square frame, constructed by the massive vertical buttresses at its side and the string courses below and above.  


Circular windows had been featured on ecclesiastical buildings for over a millennium, stylistically evolving through the ages. However, the literal framing by architectural elements of Saint-Denis’ westwork rose window is a wholly new construction. Additionally, a rose window had never been noted to be featured on a westwork.


now a clock westwork rose window
Now a clock, the westwork’s rose window still displays the original tracery, via the Society of Architectural Historians


Saint-Denis’ rose window became a blueprint for subsequent facades of Gothic architecture in northern France, notably seen at Chartres Cathedral.   


Doors Of The Central Portal 


Further promoting the power of light, Suger had the bronze portal doors gilded, and had this inscribed: 

‘All you who seek to honor these doors,
Marvel not at the gold and expense but at the craftsmanship of the work.
The noble work is bright, but, being nobly bright, the work
Should brighten the minds, allowing them to travel through
the lights.
To the true light, where Christ is the true door.
The golden door defines how it is imminent in these things.
The dull mind rises to the truth through material things,
And is resurrected from its former submersion when the
light is seen.’


Overall, the westwork exhibits a series of ‘trios,’ called a tripartite arrangement, that references the Holy Trinity – three portals, three vertical strata created by the vertical buttresses, and several groups of triple arches. This composition can be seen in Romanesque churches, notably the abbey churches of St Etienne and La Trinité, Caen. However, Saint-Denis treats this composition much more elegantly, integrating the stylistic touches we now define as Gothic. 


Second Phase: The Choir (Apse And Ambulatory), Ca. 1140-44

suger reconstructed choir
The darkened area on the right reflects Suger’s reconstructed choir, via the University of Pittsburgh


Once the westwork was complete, Suger immediately started work on the east end of the church, the above the ancient crypt focusing on the apse and ambulatory, what Suger refers to as the ‘choir.’ The nave was considered too sacred and would not be renovated until after Suger’s death.


The interior of Saint-Denis would probably have looked similar to the early Christian basilica Santa Sabina in Rome.  Quite austere in its construction, Saint-Denis would have had a nave with side aisles, a flat ceiling, and rounded apse.  


Astoundingly, in three years and three months, Suger and his master masons achieved a remarkable feat: the complete remodeling of the east end of Saint-Denis. Their inspiration and objectives were height and light.  


interior santa sabina rome
Interior of Santa Sabina, Rome, completed 432; Note the heavy masonry – flat roof, thick columns supporting low walls, via Turismo Romana


Suger and his masons made novel use of the pointed arch, ribbed vault, and the flying buttress, elements seen previously in Romanesque builds but calibrated completely differently in Saint-Denis. In his pursuit of integrating as much light into the build as possible, Suger filled spaces with elaborate stained-glass windows. Suger’s tribute to height and light codified the new Gothic architecture style.


Pointed arches, seen previously through the ages notably in Islamic architecture, concentrate pressure at the point of the arch instead of evenly distributing weight. This design enables a pointed arch to be built at a great height. A ribbed vault, a feature seen as far back as the Romans, is composed of crossed, narrow arched ribs, which push the load downwards and outwards, usually on to rows of columns or piers. Panels made of stone fill the space between the ribs. This type of vault can cover a wide space. Coupled, pointed arches and rib vaulting could support taller and thinner walls (relative to what had been seen before).  Flying buttresses further supported these tall walls. Together, these three key architectural elements enabled the addition of immense stained-glass windows (clerestory), resulting in a higher, more spacious, and light-filled interior.  


Ultimately, Suger doubled the size of the choir, reconstructing the apse and the surrounding ambulatory (to a double ambulatory), and lighting the height of the ceiling (an astounding 28 meters). 


When facing the east of the church, the view of the choir offers an expansive space held together and pushed upwards by ribbed vaulting, dominated by stained-glass windows.



The choir at Saint-Denis
The choir at Saint-Denis


Above the ambulatory, two levels of arcades move around the semi-circle of the apse, each level exhibiting pointed, double-arched windows. These windows, framed by the slender architectural columns extending downward from the ribbed vaulting blended elegantly and the pointed, carved stone surrounding each stain-glass image, allow an abundance of natural light to pour into the space.  


Before reconstruction, the ambulatory featured small chapels that radiated from the aisle, separated by thick Romanesque walls. The effect was heavy and dark. Suger planned to create a double processional ambulatory to enable easy circulation of visitors while adhering to his vision of incorporating height and light.  


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Example of the columns with floral capital surrounding the ambulatory at Saint-Denis


To achieve this, Suger and his masons dismantled the Romanesque walls and replaced them with slender columns, which kept the series of radiating chapels intact but formed a continuous view of the apse processional. The chapels, now without walls, now merged with the processional aisle and each other, forming a more unified and open composition. These elegant columns were topped with capitals of intriguing and richly carved foliage, a departure from the commonplace Romanesque capital composition of animals and humans. This stylistic approach was adopted by churches in northern France henceforth.  


Supported by rib vaults forming pointed arches, the ceiling height increased. A row of twelve columns (for each of the twelve Apostles) ran the curve of the inner edge of the ambulatory, offering an additional visual consistency. 


unobstructed passageway ambulatory
View of an unobstructed passageway ambulatory at Saint-Denis


Two stained glass windows were installed at each chapel; the windows replicate the pointed shape of the architectural arches. The size of the windows filled much of the wall space, the lower ledges reaching almost to the floor. The stained-glass depict Biblical stories and feature decorative designs  


This produced a completely new visual experience – an open space by width and height, an unobstructed view of the ambulatory, and the multiple images on stained glass, all blanketed by the light streaming in – and was completely unique. 


glass windows chapel ambulatory saint denis
View of the glass windows in a chapel of the ambulatory at Saint-Denis, via the Society of Architectural Historians.


The stained-glass windows themselves, in the chapels and throughout the arcades, are worth highlighting due to the role they play in Suger’s creation of the overall space and environment.  The jeweled glass utilized to make the windows produced a visual marvel. Streaks of multi-colored light filled the space, illuminating important holy stories and themes intended to inspire the viewer. Colored glass was incredibly rare in the Middle Ages; for an abundance of this commodity to be featured in one space speaks to the eminence of Saint-Denis.


saint denis the choir
The choir – view of double arcades and ambulatory at Saint-Denis, via the Society of Architectural Historians


To support Suger’s newly heightened church, flying buttresses were employed. These structural braces were critical in the reconstruction of Saint-Denis. Flying buttresses stabilized the church’s high walls and shared the weight load with the high roofs. Fundamentally serving a structural purpose, flying buttresses are now icons of Gothic. These massive formations are considered beautiful compliments to the stylistic scheme of Gothic architecture more so than serving an architectural necessity. 


Together, the ambulatory and the two levels of arcaded pointed arch windows, illuminated by the light harnessed via the immense and plentiful stained-glass windows, created a choir displaying a completely new aesthetic. Suger’s choir was radically different from what came before and exemplified his devotion to the divine light. It was an optical revolution. 


Of the completed work, Suger wrote the choir included a ‘circular string of chapels, by virtue of which the whole [church] would shine with the wonderful and uninterrupted light of most luminous windows.’ And commenting on the completed choir’s effects Suger carved into the nave, ‘For bright is that which is brightly coupled with the bright and bright is the noble edifice which is pervaded by the new light.’


Legacy Of Saint-Denis And Gothic Architecture

basilica colored glass
The Choir basked in light the tombs of the Merovingian Dynasty; with details of the floor at Saint-Denis, via the Society of Architectural Historians 


Fantastically, Abbot Suger left behind many literary resources regarding his rebuilding of Saint-Denis. Two works, ‘Liber de rebus in administratione sua gestis’ and ‘Libellus de consecratione ecclesiae S. Dionysii’ detail the renovations and offer a window into Suger’s inspirations. Throughout the books, Suger remarks on the intended effects that height and light impose on the new structure, and the impressions left on those who visited.  


Although Suger and his master masons utilized architectural features, forms, and concepts that had been seen before in some iteration, they were the first to not only bring them together under one roof but manipulated the application of ribbed vaulting, pointed arches, and flying buttresses in a novel way. This was literally and figuratively by design. From his writings, we know Suger and his master masons employed sophisticated tools and utilized complex arithmetical and geometrical instruments to achieve the ‘height and light’ vision of Gothic architecture.


Gothic took off quickly. We see the evidence across northern France – Notre-Dame de Paris, in Chartres, Reims, Amiens – and as experts in construction honed the style, what developed was an increased sympathy to intricate, complex design.   


Suger’s vision manifested into increased height as engineered by the architecture, to support increased natural light as engineered by the stained-glass.  The result, Saint-Denis, was the cradle of Gothic architecture.


Author Image

By Lisa de LucaBA Fine Arts & Art RestorationLisa is an artist and writer with degrees in Fine Art (BFA) and Art Restoration from FIT in New York. Her professional experience includes years as a gilder and restorer with clients including Sotheby's, Christie's, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and as an art broker working for a number of gallerists and antique dealers. Lisa's areas of interest are the history and art of the late Roman Republic and Roman Empire, Italy between 1450-1650, and Tudor England.