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Basilica of St. Denis to Have Its Tower Restored

My students are almost always bothered when we study the birth of Gothic architecture, because the façade of the Basilica of Saint-Denis currently has only one spire. Medieval church spires are often mismatched by design, but it turns out that the missing spire at Saint-Denis was toppled during a bad storm in the 19th century. There is finally a plan to rebuild it, according to an article by Florence Evin (La basilique de Saint-Denis devrait retrouver sa flèche, July 2) in Le Monde (my translation):
"Today we have the green light," rejoiced Didier Paillard, the mayor of Saint-Denis. "Preliminary feasibility studies can begin for technical studies and financing." No question of building it new: "all the materials have been kept in storage in the church, according to the mayor. It is only a matter of putting the carved stones back in place, which have been resting for 150 years at the basilica's feet." The Basilica of Saint-Denis, prototype of Gothic cathedrals, the rival of Notre-Dame de Paris, founded in the 6th century, enlarged by Saint Louis in the 13th century, to house the necropolis of the kings of France, has been abandoned for decades, without the necessary conservation care, not even heat, despite receiving 300,000 visitors each year. Without the government, its owner, caring until the recent restoration of the façade.

In 1846, a tornado called the « Trombe de Gonesse » (Gonesse Waterspout) hit Saint-Denis. It destabilized the spire raised from 1190 to 1230, reaching 85 meters (90 meters with the cross), while twelve other bell towers in the region collapsed. François Debret, chief architect of historic monuments, who was then responsible for the building, judged the fragility of the spire dangerous. He decided, in 1847, to take it down, stone by stone, as was the practice then, according to the principle of anastylosis still used today.

"M. Debret took care to number each block and to make careful linear drawings of the dismantling, with a precision like that of a scanner," says Jacques Moulin, the chief architect today in charge of the basilica, who carried out the restoration of the façade. "The 70 drawings are have been preserved as well as the plan to put them back in place," claims the architect.
Viollet-le-Duc, the successor of M. Debret, had no plan to restore the spire, instead having the idea to completely remake the entire basilica façade. Fortunately, he did not have the money to carry out his plans, and the medieval basilica remained in place, under centuries of detritus, down to its 12th-century sculpture. This is happily the reverse of Viollet-le-Duc's disastrous reconstruction of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, which has turned out to be one of the embarrassing debacles of architectural history.


Kit McKeon said...

One of my favorite classes for my undergrad degree was Medieval Theology. We learned a lot about St. Denis.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks, Kit -- next time you are in Paris, take the subway out there and see it in person if you haven't before.