La Sainte-Chapelle: Paris’ crown jewel

” … there is so much to write about this place,” said the wonderful DancingBeastie about the Sainte-Chapelle in a recent comment.

“The thought and faith behind it. The king who almost bankrupted his kingdom for a holy relic. A whole building designed as a reliquary for this most precious relic in Christendom. Its survival (unlike the Crown of Thorns) through the French Revolution, despite being used as — what was it? — a cow shed? an arsenal? Oh, please at least give us more photos of this most beautiful of thoughts in stone.”

My writing cannot match DB’s erudite prose. But I can at least offer some photos to accompany her words.

Spacebreaker 1

Suppose you somehow managed to buy one of Christianity’s most important relics. Where would you keep it?

King Louis IX faced that dilemma in the mid-1200s, after he purchased the Crown of Thorns from Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople. For King Louis — who is better known as Saint Louis — the answer was “La Sainte-Chapelle.”

B Sainte Chapelle exterior BLOG

He began construction of this magnificent chapel sometime in the mid-13th century, in the heart of the Palais de la Cité — then, Louis’ residence and the seat of his government. Completed in 1242 (or 1248, depending on the source), the entire chapel cost only about a quarter of the 135,000 livres Louis paid for the relic itself.

Today the Sainte-Chapelle still sits in the very heart of Paris, in a complex now known as the Palais de Justice.

Google Maps

The Palais de Justice is still an important court building, so every visit to the Sainte-Chapelle starts with a thorough security screening.

A Ste Chapelle and Palais 1050263 BLOG

But a visit is well worth the undignified pat-down. Here’s a glimpse of the treasures that await, even as you queue for admission.

C Ste Chapelle 40921 CROPPED BLOG

Entrance is through the lower chapel, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

E Ste chapelle lower chapel BLOG

The lower chapel was once reserved only for the king’s staff. Today, it welcomes visitors with a gift shop that sits amid a forest of gilded columns, under a fleur-de-lis ceiling that reminds me of a starry night’s sky.

Ste chapelle gallery 40922 BLOG

F Sainte Chapelle 1310143 BLOG

G Ceiling detail BLOG

Climbing up a stone spiral staircase rewards you with what one travel writer described as “a symphony in glass.” But I have no words, for I was instantly rendered speechless.

H Full frontal BLOG

This main sanctuary is decorated with fifteen large panels of stained glass windows, which create literal walls of light. Two-thirds of these windows are originals from the 13th century, depicting 1,113 scenes from the Old Testament and
the Passion of Christ.

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O1 Sainte Chapelle window detail BLOG

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The windows have survived because they were removed briefly during the early 1800s and again during World War II. Today they are once again under painstaking restoration, part of a project that will go on until 2014.

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R Sainte Chapelle 1310163 BLOG

On the western end of the chapel is the stunning 15th-century rose window, which depicts scenes from the Apocalypse, as described in Revelation. Never has mankind’s damnation been so beautifully illustrated.

H Ste Chapelle 1050023 BLOG

I2 Sainte Chapelle Rose detail BLOG

And beneath the window sits Jesus on his throne, triumphant over death.

I3 Sainte Chapelle 1310161 BLOG

Every square inch of the building is covered in equally beautiful decorations, as rich in color as they are in symbolism. But very little of what you see on the walls is original — because, like most churches in Paris, the Saint-Chapelle was heavily damaged during the Revolution. Still … the skillful restoration gives you a wonderful idea of what King Louis may have seen.

J Ste Chapelle detail 1050128 BLOG

J1 Sainte Chapelle wall detai BLOGl

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L Ste Chapelle floor 1050058 BLOG

At the eastern end of the chapel is the reliquary that Louis commissioned to house the Crown of Thorns.

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V Sainte Chapelle detail 1310169 BLOG

Alas, it sits empty today.

“Yes … so, where is the Crown of Thorns?” you may wonder.

One historian’s account says that the relic “… escaped destruction when La Sainte-Chapelle was desecrated by [a revolutionary] mob in 1791. It was kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale only being restored to its shrine in La Sainte-Chapelle in 1806. When La Sainte-Chapelle was again secularised in 1906, the relic was transferred to its present resting place in Notre Dame. The faithful may view it on Good Friday.”

Like so many things we hold so dear, it all comes down to faith — a faith expressed and preserved through this most beautiful of thoughts in stone.

X Sainte Chapelle 1310159 BLOG

Thank you again, dear DancingBeastie, for inspiring this post.


    • Thanks very much! Though this is one of those cases in which I can *truly* say that the pictures don’t do it justice!

  1. A wonderfully detailed documentary piece, H. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to go inside on our recent (all too brief) visit to Paris. Do they still offer concerts there? I remember attending one many (many) years ago; and it was quite magical.

    • You are too kind, as usual, XpatScot. Thank you! Don’t worry too much about having missed the Sainte-Chapelle on your last visit, because one-fifth of the windows were under restoration when I last visited in September. But if you can score a concert the next time you visit, I highly recommend it. My husband treated me to a night of Liszt and Chopin the last time we were there together, and the performance was as wonderful as the acoustics were. As you say: quite magical.

  2. What a treat. Thank you so much for this post, and for the fascinating links. (I thought that the Crown of Thorns itself had been destroyed in the Revolution: how amazing that it survives.) Your photos are glorious! How you managed to capture the light I can’t imagine, but the effect is wonderful.

    I’d forgotten the trompe l’oeil draperies painted onto parts of the walls, and don’t remember even noticing the tiled floor. (Too busy looking up, probably.) That sublime blue of the windows… I learned all about the symbolism of 12C blue glass as an undergrad, but have forgotten most, sadly. But hey, at least I still have – somewhere – the Sainte Chapelle pencils which I bought there when I was a student, which are covered in castles and fleurs-de-lys like the columns in the building. Ahh, we are dwarves on the shoulders of giants.

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