Apse and northern facade (Felix Benoist, 1861, lithograph)
Saint Denis was a third century Roman Christian who was sent to Roman Gaul by Pope Fabian. Denis was the first bishop of Paris, but when relations between pagans and Christians soured in the era of the Decian persecutions, he was martyred by decapitation upon Montmartre, the highest hill of Paris. According to tradition, after he was beheaded, Denis picked up his head and carried it 10 kilometers (6 miles) north while delivering a stirring ceremony. When the decapitated saint found the right spot (in what are now the suburbs of Paris—but what was then a Gallo-Roman cemetery) he put down his head and expired. In the late 5th century, St. Genevieve purchased this land and built Saint-Denys de la Chapelle. In the early 7th century, Dagobert, the king of the Franks chose this site as the location of a great Benedictine monastery the Abbey of Saint Denis. The site became a major center for pilgrimages during the Middle Ages (and the monastery grew even more rich due to a lucrative whaling concession, from the crown), but as the centuries wore on, the Carolingian church started to wear out (and the original sacred complex was not big enough to contain the throngs of worshipers).
West façade of Saint Denis, before the dismantling of the north tower (c. 1844 – 1845)
Thus, in the 12th century, Abbot Suger, a close friend of the kings of France, began to rebuild the church in a grand new style involving pointed arches, flying buttresses, large windows, high towers, and great interior spaces. This style—an abrupt departure from the Romanesque style, which had dominated architecture–was initially known as the French style. As the political fortunes of the Angevin dynasty waxed, the style spread throughout France, England, the Low Countries, Germany, Spain, northern Italy, and Sicily. The style quickly was renamed Gothic style and it became the dominant architecture of Europe in the late middle ages (and beyond). The Basilica of Saint Denis, the resting place of deceased French kings (did I mention that all but three French kings are buried there? I probably should have said that) was the first great Gothic building–the first high cathedral.
The nave of the Basilica of St. Denis. Shot from the chancel.