Basilica of St. Denis--page 1 (of ten pages): front facade

begun about 1130

Front facade or Westwork-- 1130s (consecrated 1140)

Not only has the church played a role in the history of France, it played a crucial role in the history of architecture. Scholars agree that Gothic architecture developed in the Ile de France and usually point to the Abbey of St. Denis as the starting point. Much of the credit belongs to Abbot Suger, a powerful and influential churchman, elected to the abbey church in 1122. Suger did not rebuild the entire church at once but began with the westwork with an addition of a structure two bays deep and three bays across. The three portals provide easy access to the church and mirror the internal structure of three aisles. Strong buttresses demarcate the facade.

Front facade or Westwork

This facade is not really Gothic and in fact echoes St. Étienne in Caen, the burial place of the Dukes of Normandy and of William the Conqueror as well. It also echoes Carolingian models, a more local tradition. The second (north) tower was demolished after it was unsuccessfully restored. The central rose window on the west front was one of the first in a long line of similarly positioned rose windows.

The left portal

This is one of three portals. Suger rationalized building the new westwork, not only because increasing number of pilgrims were visiting the church (necessitating more efficient access) but for symbolic reasons as well. For him the three portals represented the Trinity. This portal has relief sculptures of the signs of the zodiac.

Signs of the Zodiac-- center: right side of left portal; right: Aries, the Ram (March)


Left: Taurus, the Bull (April); center: Scorpio, the Scorpion (October)


The central portal with the Last Judgment in the tympanum, before 1140

Originally there were column statues flanking the doors, depicting Old Testament kings and queens welcoming the faithful, but these were mutilated and mostly destroyed during the French Revolution. Bishop Suger had personally contributed the bronze doors (which are no longer extant). The doors are flanked by statues in niches of the wise and foolish virgins.

The right portal

The labors of the months flank this door.

Left: the left side of the door with some of the Labors of the Month; center: April--the Flower-bearer or pruning or grafting vines?; right: September--threshing


Left: October--fattening pigs for the holiday meal; center: December--feasting during the holidays

The roundel between these two depicts the killing of the pigs for the meal. (See above row with the left side of the door.)

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© 2006 Mary Ann Sullivan. I have photographed (on site), scanned, and manipulated all the images on these pages. Please feel free to use them for personal or educational purposes. They are not available for commercial purposes.