” … 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.
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.”
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.
The Palais de Justice is still an important court building, so every visit to the Sainte-Chapelle starts with a thorough security screening.
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.
Entrance is through the lower chapel, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And beneath the window sits Jesus on his throne, triumphant over death.
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.
At the eastern end of the chapel is the reliquary that Louis commissioned to house the Crown of Thorns.
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.
Thank you again, dear DancingBeastie, for inspiring this post.