Saint-Denis © Seine Saint Denis Tourisme

Rebuilding or Restoring the spire of Saint-Denis

St. Denis in Northern Paris was the first Gothic cathedral. Until a storm in 1846 its western facade featured a magnificent spire. Later dismantled, plans are underway to reconstruct it

In 1846 the Gothic steeple of the Cathedral of St. Denis in Paris was destroyed by a virulent storm and it fell to the great consternation of the French, who at that time were labouring to restore l’Ancien Regime to its former glory.

History of the Monument

Vision of Violet-le-Duc. Source: Wikipedia
Vision of Violet-le-Duc. Source: Wikipedia

St. Denis was early on the ancient burial place for the kings and queens of France. As as such it underwent continued rebuilding and reconstruction since the first martyrium was erected in the 6th century.

In the 7th century the Merovingian king, Dagobert, founded an Abbey and had his artist-in-residence, Eligius, construct a new shrine. Later, in the 8th century, a Carolingian church was built, which was consecrated in 775, as witnessed by Charlemagne. Next phase was the major rebuilding initiated by Abbot Suger in 1135. Arguably, the first Gothic Cathedral, the new choir became the inspiration for numerous architects in the next centuries and all over Europe. When the new choir was dedicated in 1144, it simply turned into the prototype. Following this, masons began constructing the towers of the west end, while a spire was fitted to the northern tower reaching 85 meters high.

Later, in the 13th century, the rebuilding of the Carolingian nave was rebuilt in the latest and most daring fashion, also used in the construction of the Sainte Chapelle, the Rayonnant Gothic; later additions, for instance the Valois Chapel, did not basically mar the Cathedral and visiting it, it is still possible to experience it somewhat like Suger envisioned it in the 12th century.

Saint-Denis facade. Source: Wikipedia/Thomas Clouet CC BY 4.0
Saint-Denis facade. Source: Wikipedia/Thomas Clouet CC BY 4.0

Or at least, it seems like that. The point is that the church naturally suffered during the revolution and in the 19th century it fell into the hands of first François Debret and later the infamous architect, Viollet-le-Duc, who began his restoration in 1846 after the north tower had fallen in the violent November-storm (at which point Debret was sacked). One of the first jobs of Violet-le-Duc was simply to dismantle the debris.

Now, Violet-le-Duc is famous for his architectural obsession and his lack of interest in later decorative additions. He once claimed that “restoring a building, is not to maintain, repair or do again, it is to restore it back into a complete state that may never have existed at a given point”.

One of the decorative details, which fell victim to all this, were the last remains of the polychrome murals from the Carolingian period, which had been detected earlier. But also old building elements were unceremoniously destroyed together with important historical knowledge, which might have otherwise been preserved in situ. Although much is documented in diaries and drawings, much has been lost forever. Obviously, his stated aim was to create the perfect “medieval-style” cathedral less than restore and care for a building with more than a thousand years history vested in its vaults. Luckily, though, Violet-le-Duc lacked funding and some of his more audacious plans were never carried out in the same manner as they unfortunately were at Notre-Dame. Of these plans a total renovation of the west facade was abandoned. Recently, this has been carefully restored and shimmer in all its glory. Lacking, though, is the steeple with its spire.

The Spire

Tower to be built during the reconstruction. Source: Saint-Denis
Tower to be built during the reconstruction. Source: Saint-Denis

For some years, the Mayor at St. Denis and a group of entrepreneurs with vested interests in the gentrification of the North of Paris and the tourism industry in particular, have lobbied to have this steeple and spire rebuilt. The project, which was first aired in 1987, fed a commission, which twenty years ago concluded that the faithful reconstruction was feasible. Later arguments for carrying out the reconstruction are such projects as the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche in Dresden and the reconstruction of the Basilica in Assisi, destroyed in an earthquake in 1997. Another contributing factor is that least some of the original building material was kept at the site after the demolition. Until now, however, the main obstacle has been the price. Now, however, the group behind has come up with what they believe is an excellent idea. Building on the experience of the tourism venture at Guédelon, the plan is to turn the reconstruction into a medieval working site, where tourists might pay for access to the experience the actual rebuilding. By demonstrating techniques of working the stones and building the Spire, the commission finally hope to have found a way to lure more tourists out of central Paris. They expect more than ten times the present number of visitors.

It stands to reason that the plans for the reconstruction have met serious criticism. First of all, the opponents have pointed out that the stones have not been faithfully preserved. Rather, they have been left to wither around the church and most of it – if not all – will only be fit to use as models for the carving of new stones. Some are said to be kept in a municipal store, but public has not been allowed access to this. Secondly, the question is of course which form, the “new” spire should take: the original? Or perhaps – more likely – the idea of the restored spire, which François Debret worked to realise in the 1830s and 40s (before the storm destroyed the ancient construction)? And if so, can this reconstruction be carried out without seriously damaging the fabric of the basilica? According to some specialists, the reconstruction will require a consolidation of the western end by pouring concrete into the foundation. All this will conspire to make the edifice less “authentic” and more “disneyfied”, says the critics.

Yesterday, the French Ministry for Culture met with the National Commission for Historical Monuments to discuss the future of the project. According to Le Parisien, eight voted against the project, six for and two abstained. As usual – this being France – the public is not allowed to see or review the reports on which a decision will be made. Rumour has it though that not only that representatives for the Cathedral and City of Saint-Denis but also President Hollande and the Minister for Culture, Audray Azoulay, are positive.

SOURCES:

Remontage de la fleche de Saint-Denis.

Flèche de Saint-Denis : des pierres neuves et un état qui n’a jamais existé.
By Didier Rykner. La Tribune de l’Art. 17.01.2017

Patrimoine – Basilique Saint Denis : Faut-il restituer la flèche manquante ou laisser l’édifice en l’état ? Deux écoles de pensée s’affrontent.
Blog: Résistance Inventerre

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VISIT:

Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis

Musée d’art et d’histoire de Saint-Denis
22 bis rue Gabriel Péri
93200 Saint-Denis

This museum exhibits the finds from the archaeological excavations carried out north of the basilica as well as sculptures and fragments of from the building.

FEATURED PHOTO:

Saint-Denis © Seine Saint Denis Tourisme

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