Sainte Chapelle

Sainte Chapelle (5)

Sainte-Chapelle, the Holy Chapel, is one of the jewels of Gothic art that Paris possesses.

The history of Sainte-Chapelle began in the 13th century. At that time King Louis IX ordered the construction of a chapel to guard the relics of the Passion of Christ. 

King Louis IX, later Saint Louis of France, was very devout and in 1239 after two years of negotiations with the Emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin II, was able to purchase from him the crown of thorns of Christ and a piece of the Holy Cross, paying an enormous amount of money for them. In fact, he paid 3 times more for the relics than for the construction of Sainte-Chapelle. 

It is not known for sure who the author was of this work of art of transparency, but it is believed to have been the work of Pierre de Montreuil. This architect had already worked on Notre Dame and the abbey of Saint Denis. Sainte-Chapelle was built between 1241 and 1248, a record for the period.

The building was designed as a reliquary, a place for guarding relics. It also had to serve as a royal chapel. In reality the project was made up of two superimposed chapels. The upper chapel was used by the royal family and the lower one by the people of the palace who were not members of the king’s family.

 The Virgin Mary is the grand presence in the lower chapel, since it is dedicated to her image. Moreover, it supports the weight of the upper chapel. Its thick pillars are the base of the whole structure. The walls are decorated with trilobular arches and with twelve medallions, which represent the apostles.

On the columns alternate the fleur-de-lis of France over lapis lazuli background and the towers of Castile in homage to Blanca of Castile, the mother of Saint Louis. The vaulting is painted with a starry sky and the floor comprises a series of funerary slabs that cover the sepulchres of the treasurers and canons of Sainte-Chapelle.

The upper chapel was planned to contain the remains of the saints. It is much more elaborate than the lower chapel. There are no walls here and in their place you can see some magnificent stained-glass windows that occupy a total space of 670 square metres. 

In total 15 stained-glass windows offer a unique spectacle. The whole series illustrates scenes from the Old and New Testaments. It begins with the Genesis and ends with the story of King Louis IX the moment he receives the relics of the Passion. You can see scenes from the childhood of Christ, Judith, Job, Esther and of the Last Supper. The large rose window is the grand finale, its 86 panels describing the story of the Apocalypse. At sunset it is stunning.

More than one thousand religious scenes provide you with a spectacle of colour, red, blue, gold, green, mauve... 

Today, two-thirds of these stained-glass windows are the originals. 

You can also appreciate, attached to the columns, the statues of the twelve apostles.

The saints’ relics were conserved in a large reliquary, magnificently adorned in the back of the apse. Every Good Friday they are shown to worshipers.

The history of Sainte-Chapelle has also had its scares. Two fires affected it in 1630 and 1776. Water also tried to finish it off. A rise in the level of the Seine destroyed the stained-glass windows of the lower chapel in 1690. And of course, the Revolution also affected Sainte-Chapelle. In those turbulent days it was sacked and stripped of its treasures. Some statues were also disfigured and the furnishing of the upper chapel disappeared. The silver reliquary was removed to be recast. 

The crown of thorns was saved and finally sent to Notre Dame, where it is still kept today.

As it had lost its original function, Sainte-Chapelle was turned into an archive centre in 1803.

In 1837 a plan was proposed to restore Sainte-Chapelle due to its condition. The works were carried out between 1840 and 1868. The architects taking part in the project were advised by Violet-le-Duc, who was responsible for the restoration of Notre Dame.

In the Middle Ages Sainte-Chapelle was described as being “a gateway to heaven”, so do not miss the chance to see for yourself  and marvel at this chapel that brilliantly combines light, colour, space, art and faith.

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