Article updated on March 4, 2022
Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
The 13th century Sainte Chapelle, built in a record time to host Christianity’s most precious relics, is a magical place to admire world’s most beautiful stained-glass windows, only a stone’s throw away from Notre Dame de Paris. Probably one of the most breath-taking moments you will have in the city of lights…
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A dark and narrow spiral stairway with uneven stone steps polished by the centuries leads us to a space flooded with light. The 15-meter-high stained-glass windows seem to reach for the sky, this dark blue arched ceiling dotted with golden stars. The elegant stone structure reinforced by well-hidden rough iron staples disappears to highlight the colourful windows that seem to be floating. The number of details on these 1,113 biblical scenes is dazzling!
Each panel is to be read from left to right, and from bottom to top. I take my time and start at the north-western corner, identifying scenes from the first panel: the Genesis. As we are passing the scenes of the Exodus towards the central panels representing the Passion of the Christ, the stories of the Ancient Testament keep being told on the southern side, to end with the Apocalypse, depicted on the 15th century Rose window in flamboyant style, above the entrance.
This must have looked surreal to the medieval believer! But not too many could access this private chapel built within the royal palace. Only the ground floor was accessible to the people, while the main floor was reserved for the king and his invites. The left delicate wooden spiral staircase leading to the central tribune where the relics were stored is the original which was only and exclusively accessible to the king of France. At the tribune level, the windows where the crucifixion of the Christ is depicted used to open on the exterior in order for the Crown of Thorns of the Christ to be exhibited to believers on Good Friday.
The holy relic was to bring divine protection to France and to make the kingdom a pillar of western Christendom. This act of faith and genius political move of the very pious Louis IX (to become Saint Louis) who embarked on two crusades, came at a hefty price. In the early 13th century, crusaders took Byzantium (today’s Istanbul) and established the Latin Empire. The Catholic emperor Baldwin II was struggling to keep Byzantium. In order to raise most needed funds, he sold one of the most precious relics of Christianity: The Crown of Thorns of the Christ.
To host such a precious relic that touched the head of Christ and which thorns pierced His skin, a very special jewel case was built by Saint Louis: La Sainte Chapelle (or the Holy Chapel). In the divided and feudal France of the 13th century, in his royal palace Louis IX was building the symbol of a power he received directly from God.
The genius architect who built the chapel is unknown to this day, even if it is thought to be Pierre de Montreuil, the main architect of the close by Notre Dame. If the cathedral took over two centuries to be built, the Sainte Chapelle was erected in only six years (1242-1248)! Noble stones, quarried in close-by Charenton, were used, and craftsmen from all over France worked on the stained-glass windows, sculptures and other ornaments. Still, the relics acquired by Louis IX costed two and a half times more than building the finest of all holy chapels!
Standing on the tribune and contemplating these magnificent stained-glass windows that seem to form the structure of the building, I focus on other elements. Every detail is precious: the incrusted floor, the almost millennium-old polychromatic sculptures of the apostles, the delicate sculpted details of the capitals depicting more than 200 different types of trees to symbolise the garden of Eden, the polychromatic paintings on the columns and walls…
We are privileged to be accompanied by Christopher Wride, in charge of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux of the Ile de la Cité (i. e. Notre Dame, La Sainte Chapelle and La Conciergerie). Christopher points out to the remarkable restoration of the oldest stained-glass windows of Paris, two thirds of which being original and dating back to the 1250’s. The broken glass has been frozen in resin, the disappearing grisaille has been left untouched, every square inch has been cleaned, lead has been melted to reinforce some of the panels. To resist better to bacteria, the panels have been reinstalled four centimetres forward to create a natural ventilation behind them where transparent copies have been placed on the outside of the gothic chapel.
Over the centuries, the Sainte Chapelle survived flooding of the close-by Seine River, storms, fires in the neighbouring royal palace, the French Revolution, riots, world wars… It is not short of a miracle that we are standing here today in this massive work of art, converted into a state monument during the French Revolution, and it is thanks to the successive restorations and current care by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux that we can admire world’s most famous stained-glass windows.
- The Crown of Thorns of the Christ was transferred to Notre Dame after the French Revolution, and saved from the 2018 fire that ravaged the cathedral of Paris. It is now stored in an undisclosed location by the clergy.
- The Sainte Chapelle is one of the most visited sites of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, and its restoration as well as the restoration of some of the other 110 national monumentsis funded by entrance tickets. Fundraising to preserve the fragile Sainte Chapelle is a challenge.
- We love mornings in the Sainte Chapelle, but there is no bad time to visit. The late afternoon rainbow on the ancient floor is also wonderful.
- Most guidebooks recommend a sunny day, but during a cloudy day, the light is diffused better on the stained-glass windows. Beautiful!
- When purchasing the ticket, you can buy a discounted ticket for La Conciergerie, a few metres away that used to be a royal palace before becoming a scary jail.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!
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