Sculptural Program

The three sculpted portals of the west façade were put in place by Abbot Suger, around 1135-1140. The south portal shows the last communion of St. Dionysius, the patron saint of the abbey church, and his two companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius. The interior band of voussoirs shows further instances from the life of St. Dionysius, while the exterior shows angels with liturgical instruments. The jamb figures are all missing. The doorposts are carved with the labors of the month.

The north portal was completely redone in the nineteenth century, and shows St. Dionysius' martyrdom. The voussoirs show Old Testament figures; Moses and Aaron in particular can be discerned on the outer band. The signs of the zodiac are carved on the doorposts. We know from Suger's writings, however, that this portal would originally have been a mosaic, an unusual addition to a French church at the time, and one of which Suger was quite proud. It was most likely a scene showing the Coronation of the Virgin, perhaps after the Italian example in Montecassino that he had seen on his travels.

The central portal, also heavily redone since Suger's time, shows a typical Last Judgment, drawing from the Romanesque tradition. A large Christ in Majesty occupies the center of the tympanum, displaying the stigmata and unfurling scrolls in either hand. The lowest register of the tympanum shows the dead rising from their graves, while above the apostles sit to either side of Christ and converse actively. Above Christ are four angels holding the instruments of the passion. The voussoirs continue the story, with the inner band showing the saved souls in Heaven to Christ's right, and the torturing of damned souls in Hell to his left. The outer three bands of voussoirs depict the elders of the Apocalypse, seated with musical instruments. The wise and foolish virgins are carved on the doorposts.

All three portals would have original displayed jamb figures of Old Testament kings, queens, and prophets. Suger is widely considered to be the first to use this convention towards the creation of a royal portal, drawing a connection between Regnum and Sacerdotium and celebrating Saint Denis' status as a royal abbey. These figures, which survive in fragments and through drawings, are of an elegant, refined Romanesque style, and were most likely carved by sculptors trained outside of the Ile-de-France, in Burgundy and Languedoc.

Suger's vision at Saint Denis can be considered the earliest conception of a gothic sculptural program, with multiple portals working together to present a unified didactic whole. The pairing of an eschatological motif with a portal to the Virgin and one to local saints was a common trope in sermons of the time, providing multiple paths to salvation at the end of time through the Church and its great figures. We can see a similar layout later on the west façade of Amiens Cathedral, and also earlier at Chartres. Indeed, the intellectual and iconographic unity of Suger's façade would become the standard during the Gothic building boom in northern France.

The north transept portal at Saint Denis, also known as the Porte des Valois, is an achievement of another great era of Gothic sculpture. It also depicts the martyrdom of Saint Dionysius and his two companions, with their imprisonment and last communion in the lintel, and their martyrdom by beheading in the tympanum. The three bands of voussoirs show standing kings. The trumeau is a Virgin and Child, and the jamb figures are, to the left, Old Testament kings, and to the right Old Testament prophets.

While the tympanum has been badly damaged and was partially restored in the nineteenth century, the stylistic link to the workshops at Mantes and Senlis are readily visible, particularly in the soft waves of the drapery folds and the swaying postures of the voussoir figures. Though the portal was probably carved around 1170, it was not put in place until the thirteenth century, and may have originally been intended for the south rather than the north portal.



The Floorplan: Images & Panoramas
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Vital Statistics
  • Begun around 1137
  • Destroyed in 0
  • Latitude 48.9353981018066
  • Longitude 2.35995006561279
  • Parent Town
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