The stained glass windows of the ambulatory of the Basilica Saint-Denis Cathedral, dating from the middle of the 12th century, are a real milestone in the history of the stained glass window and their value is, as such, exceptional. Very fragile, the oldest stained glass windows in the basilica (31 in number) were deposited in 1997, placed in conservation at the Historic Monuments Research Laboratory (LRMH) in Champs-sur-Marne, and replaced by polycarbonate facsimiles. Since March 2022, the Ministry of Culture-DRAC Île-de-France has undertaken a first restoration of these stained glass windows of a little over a year with a rehabilitation of the ambulatory and chapels. This €2.2 million operation is financed under the France relance - plan cathédrale plan.
A basilica turned cathedral
Saint-Denis Basilica is a Gothic church originally founded as an abbey church. At its origins, the former royal abbey of Saint-Denis is associated with the history of the Franks. The abbey church has been called the «basilica» since the Merovingian period (629-639). Rebuilt by Abbé Suger, advisor to the kings, from 1135 to 1144, completed in the 13th century under the reign of Saint Louis, a major work of Gothic art, the church inaugurates the central square of light, symbol of the divine, in religious architecture. It was granted the status of cathedral of the diocese of Saint-Denis in 1966.
It is classified as a historical monument by the list of 1862. The surrounding garden has been listed as a historical monument since August 19, 1926.
Saint-Denis, the last resting place of the kings and queens of France
Saint-Denis Cathedral Basilica stands on the site of a Gallo-Roman cemetery. burial place of Saint Denis, missionary bishop, martyred around 250.
This church became a royal necropolis from the origins of French royalty since the queen Arégonde, daughter of Clovis I, lies there. Dagobert I was the first king to be buried there; his recumbent body is placed in the central choir and he is the only one to be positioned on the side and looking towards the relics of Saint Denis.
The royal necropolis of the Basilica of Saint-Denis houses the tombs of many French and Frankish sovereigns, from Dagobert I to Louis XVIII. But if some Merovingian kings then Carolingians established their last stay there, it is with the Robertians and the Capetians that the royal necropolis installed in the church of Saint-Denis that it acquires its definitive status of gathering place of royal burials. Thus the Capetian kings all rested there, with the exception of Philip I, Louis VII and Louis XI.
Gisants and royal necropolis of the crypt - ©DRAC Île-de-France/CAILLOUX-et-Cie
Gradually, the necropolis received burials not only from kings and queens, but also from members of the royal family, as well as from great servants of the kingdom whom kings wanted to honor by allowing them to rest with them.
This last residence of the kings and queens of France hosts the graves of 43 kings, 32 queens and 10 servants of the monarchy. With more than 70 medieval recumbents and monumental Renaissance tombs, the basilica is home to the largest collection of funeral sculptures from the 12th to the 16th centuries.
Exceptional stained glass windows: history and conservation
Between 1140 and 1144, Abbé Suger modified the bedside and created an ambulatory with radiant chapels where the stained glass windows shone. In each chapel, it has two large counterpoint windows. These stained glass windows are ready for the ceremonies of the choir celebration in 1144. For this project, Father Suger had recourse to the best artists and master glassmakers of the region. Coloured glass was very rare in the Middle Ages. The stained glass windows would have cost more than the building’s stone construction.
View of the ambulatory and chapels - ©DRAC Île-de-France/CAILLOUX-et-Cie
They were not vandalized during the Revolution. It was Alexandre LENOIR who deposited some in 1799 to install them in the museum of French monuments. He thus dismantles the famous canopy of Jessé’s tree. Subsequently the architect François DEBRET (1832-1836), then Alfred GÉRENTE and Eugene VIOLLET-LE-DUC re-establish them in the ambulatory and are at the origin of the last known state. During these various manipulations throughout history, panels were lost, others broken and some even sold.
Very fragile, the oldest stained glass windows of the basilica (31 in number) were deposited in 1997, placed in conservation in the Laboratory of Research of Historical Monuments (LRMH), in Champs-sur-Marne, then restored from 2014. A study conducted from 2008 to 2012 by Benjamin MOUTON, ACMH, concluded that they could not be reinstated. Since 1997 they have been replaced in the basilica by polycarbonate facsimiles. This is an exceptional decision that is justified by the fragility and preciousness of these stained glass windows.
Bay 7, Massacre des innocents and Bay 2, Jessé tree with facsimile in blue - ©DRAC Île-de-France/Nicolas THOUVENIN
The operation of restoration of the windows of the ambulatory
In order to replace the facsimiles, to restore harmony to the whole ambulatory and to consolidate the rest of the windows, a first phase of restoration of the windows covering the five central chapels (windows 1 to 10) was therefore decided by the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs (DRAC) of Île-de-France, under the project management of Jacques MOULIN, chief architect of historical monuments (ACMH).
Removal of stained glass windows from bay 10 - combined canopy - ©DRAC Île-de-France/Nicolas THOUVENIN
€2.2 million from the France recovery plan - cathedral plan
Stained glass windows restored, copied and created:
- the old panels deposited in 1997 at the LRMH are copied strictly identical. This decision was motivated by the observation of the continuous evolution of knowledge and the temporality of research on stained glass;
- the panels still in place, mainly from the nineteenth century, will be restored without being modified or rebuilt;
- stained glass windows are created for bays 8 and 10 in a spirit of archaeological reconstruction and based on the collected documentation.
As part of the scientific and technical control, a monitoring committee was set up consisting of personalities specialized in the history of the stained glass windows, in the history of medieval art, of the chief architect, a representative of the Heritage Inspectorate and the persons responsible for the file at DRAC Île-de-France.
The Scientific Committee was established to inform the scientific and technical control of the DRAC, within the framework of the restoration of the stained glass windows of the ambulatory of the Basilica of Saint-Denis and the perimeter and the party of intervention specified by the Commission nationale du patrimoine et de l'architecture.
Copy, restoration and creation of stained glass windows in Vitrail France - ©DRAC Île-de-France/Nicolas THOUVENIN
Vitrail France, located in the Sarthe and directed by Mr Emmanuel PUTANIER, won the call for tenders and demonstrated their know-how during the call for applications by making a trial copy of a medieval panel kept at the LRMH.
This work of stained glass windows will be accompanied by a rehabilitation of all the interior facing of the ambulatory and the chapels, a cleaning of the tabernacles of the central chapels and the support of the grilles designed by Eugene VIOLLET-LE-DUC for the axial chapel.
This operation should last a little more than a year and end in spring 2023, its total budget amounts to 2.2 million euros financed by the State under the plan France relance - plan cathédrale.
Rehabilitation of interior siding of ambulatory and chapels - ©DRAC Île-de-France
Restoration of the tabernacles and the grilles of the chapels - ©DRAC Île-de-France - ©DRAC Île-de-France/Nicolas THOUVENIN
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