Sculpture of decapitated Saint Denis, holding his head in his hands.
Saint-Denis, from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris: Saint-Denis was martyred in connection with the Decian persecution of Christians, shortly after CE 250.

Dagobert I re-founded the church as the Abbey of Saint-Denis, a Benedictine monastery. Dagobert also commissioned a new shrine to house the saint’s remains; it was created by his chief councillor, Eligius, a goldsmith by training.



Dagobert's tomb is shown elaborately decorated.
Tomb of Dagobert I: Dagobert’s tomb was improved during the 13th century at the Basilica of Saint-Denis.

Abbot Suger

Abbot Suger (circa 1081-1151), Abbot of Saint-Denis from 1122 and a friend and confidant of French kings, had been given the abbey as an oblate at the age of 10 and began work around 1135 on rebuilding and enlarging it. Suger was the patron of the rebuilding of Saint-Denis, but not the architect, as was often assumed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, it appears that two distinct architects, or master masons, were involved in the 12th-century changes. Both remain anonymous, but their work can be distinguished stylistically. The first, who was responsible for the initial work at the western end, favoured conventional Romanesque capitals and moulding profiles with rich and individualized detailing. His successor, who completed the western facade and upper stories of the narthex before going on to build the new choir, displayed a more restrained approach to decorative effects, relying on a simple repertoire of motifs, which may have proved more suitable for the lighter Gothic style that he helped to create.

Suger’s western extension was completed in 1140 and the three new chapels in the narthex were consecrated on June 9th of that year. On completion of the west front, Abbot Suger moved on to the reconstruction of the eastern end. He wanted a choir (chancel) that would be suffused with light. To achieve his aims, Suger’s masons drew on the new elements that had evolved or been introduced to Romanesque architecture: the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, the ambulatory with radiating chapels, the clustered columns supporting ribs springing in different directions, and the flying buttresses, which enabled the insertion of large clerestory windows. This was the first time that these features had all been brought together. The new structure was finished and dedicated on June 11th of 1144, in the presence of the King.



Abbey Church of Saint-Denis: This is the west facade of the Basilica of Saint-Denis, showcasing the distinct features of Romanesque architecture.
Abbey Church of Saint-Denis: This is the west facade of the Basilica of Saint-Denis, showcasing the distinct features of Romanesque architecture.

Thus, the Abbey of Saint-Denis became the prototype for further building in the royal domain of northern France. Through the rule of the Angevin dynasty, the style was introduced to England and spread throughout France, the Low Countries, Germany, Spain, northern Italy, and Sicily.

The dark Romanesque nave, with its thick walls and small window openings, was rebuilt using the latest techniques, in what is now known as Gothic. This new style, which differed from Suger’s earlier works as much as they had differed from their Romanesque precursors, reduced the wall area to an absolute minimum. Solid masonry was replaced with vast window openings filled with brilliant stained glass and interrupted only by the most slender of bar tracery—not only in the clerestory but also, perhaps for the first time, in the normally dark triforium level. The upper facades of the two much-enlarged transepts were filled with two spectacular rose windows. As with Suger’s earlier rebuilding work, the identity of the architect or master mason is unknown.

The abbey is often referred to as the “royal necropolis of France” as it is the site where the kings of France and their families were buried for centuries. All but three of the monarchs of France from the 10th century until 1789 have their remains here. The effigies of many of the kings and queens are on their tombs, but during the French Revolution, those tombs were opened and the bodies were moved to mass graves.

Gothic Architecture: La Saint-Chapelle

Louis IX ruled during the so-called “golden century of Saint Louis,” when the Kingdom of France was at its height of power in Europe, both politically and economically drove much innovation in Gothic art and architecture, exemplified by his commission of La Saint-Chappelle, an example of Rayonnant Gothic architecture. The king of France was regarded as a primus inter pares among the kings and rulers of the continent. He commanded the largest army and ruled the largest and most wealthy kingdom of Europe, which was the European center of arts and intellectual thought (La Sorbonne) at the time. The prestige and respect for King Louis IX resulted more from his benevolent personality than from his military domination. For his contemporaries, he was the quintessential example of the Christian prince and embodied the whole of Christendom in his person. The King was later recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.



Bust depicts Louis IX from the side with long hair and a crown.
Bust of St. Louis, ca. 1300 from the church of Maineville, Eure, France: Louis IX, or Saint Louis, was a revered leader and strong patron of the arts during the Gothic period.

The style of Louis’ court radiated throughout Europe through the purchase of art objects from Parisian masters for export and by the marriage of the King’s daughters and female relatives to foreign husbands. Louis’ personal chapel, La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, was copied more than once by his descendants elsewhere.



The ceiling is richly colored and decorated. The prominent design is gold fleur de lys on a blue background.
Sainte-Chapelle, ceiling of the lower chapel: Saint Louis’ Sainte-Chapelle epitomizes the Rayonnant Gothic style as was King Louis IX’s personal chapel.

La Sainte-Chapelle (The Holy Chapel) is one of the only surviving buildings of the Capetian royal palace on the Île de la Cité in the heart of Paris, France. It was commissioned by King Louis IX of France to house his collection of relics of the passion, including the Crown of Thorns—one of the most important relics in medieval Christendom. Begun sometime after 1239 and consecrated on April 26, 1248, the Sainte-Chapelle is considered among the highest achievements of the Rayonnant period of Gothic architecture. Although damaged during the French revolution and heavily restored in the 19th century, it retains one of the most extensive in-situ collections (collections that are still in their original positions) of 13th-century stained glass anywhere in the world. The glass depicts stories from the Old Testament and focuses heavily on the depictions of biblical kings, both good and bad. Scholars believe the inclusion of “bad” kings, along with the good, were meant as a lesson for the royal viewer to learn from both good and bad examples of rulership.

La Sainte-Chapelle is a prime example of the phase of Gothic architectural style called “Rayonnant Gothic,” also known as Court Style, and is marked by its sense of weightlessness and strong vertical emphasis. Rayonnant structures tend to be smaller than the High Gothic Cathedrals that came before them. La Sainte-Chapelle stands squarely upon a lower chapel, which served as a parish church for all the inhabitants of the palace, which was the seat of government. However, the chapel proper was a private royal chapel and scholars have noted how the structure almost looks like metalwork as if the chapel itself is a reliquary.


  • An increased population of cities in France, as well as a strengthened French monarch, contributes to the development of the Gothic style.
  • The most expressive medium for the Gothic style is architecture, specifically, cathedrals.
  • While the Gothic style was developed in Northern France, it spread throughout Europe where different regional styles were adopted. French Gothic cathedrals were characterized by lighter construction and large windows.
  • Defining architectural feature of Gothic construction include pointed arches and a height enhanced by both the architectural features and the decoration of the building.
  • All design elements of Gothic cathedrals are intended to pay homage to and bring attention to the Glory of God.
  • The western entrance to the Cathedral is typically the primary point of entry and therefore the most elaborate facade.
  • Stained glass adds a dimension of colour to the light within the building, as well as providing a medium for figurative and narrative art.

Adapted from “Boundless Art History” LicenseCC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike