France: Saint-Denis Stained Glass Windows Finally Restored

February 14, 2023

The restoration of ten windows, among the 31 in the St. Denis basilica, has just been completed. But it will still take time to complete all the restoration work on the necropolis of the kings of France, the cost of which is estimated at 2.2 million euros.

“Saint-Denis is deserted. The bird has taken it as a passage, the grass grows on its broken altars and one hears only the drops falling from its exposed roof. Fortunately, in 2023, it is no more than a bad memory, this dark vision of the Saint-Denis basilica offered to the reader by Chateaubriand, in his Genius of Christianity.

The splendor and misery of the stained glass windows of the necropolis of the kings of France, one might add. After having survived the iconoclastic hatred of the first years of the French Revolution, the windows of the sacred building were dismantled in 1799, to be stored in the Museum of French Monuments by Alexandre Lenoir.

It was Viollet-le-Duc who returned the windows to their original destination, at the cost of hazardous manipulations during which several of these works of art were damaged, or even completely destroyed.

Priceless losses, because, through these 12th century stained glass windows, shines the brilliance of the famous “Suger blue” - named after Abbot Suger who originally decorated and restored the basilica between 1140 and 1144 – a color of glass which would have cost more than the stone construction of the building itself, if we are to believe the Drac Île-de-France.

It is a heritage so precious that the curators have decided to permanently shelter the stained glass windows, at the historical monuments research laboratory (LRMH). “By restoring them, we understood that they could not be put back in place again,” justifies the Drac.

The first ten windows, restored identically and gradually reassembled since the beginning of February 2023, are in fact facsimiles in polycarbonate; and no less than eight specialists from France Vitrail were mobilized, in order to allow the most exact rendering possible, to the point, it must be said, of giving the illusion of old glass. The result is amazing.

It is a real Herculean work which is far from complete. In all, 31 stained glass windows must be restored. Some panels, still in place since Viollet-le-Duc, will simply be refreshed.

But in two side chapels, the state is planning an order for contemporary stained glass windows, which we hope will not spoil the harmony of the sanctuary in which lie the empty stone recumbent effigies of the kings and queens who made France.