There is only so much you can do when you are visiting somewhere for 48hrs and despite frequent visits to Paris, as an adult, Sainte Chapelle had until now eluded me. In fact apart from Notre Dame the isle of Cite in the centre of Seine and the heart of the city of lights has for the most part eluded exploration on my trips to Paris. Considering my love of Gothic churches, vaulted ceilings and stain glass, why it has taken me so long to get to visit this majestic and magical space is beyond me.
This 13th century gem is situated in a complex with the Palace of Justice on the isle of Cite. Be warned I queued for over an hour to get into the chapelle. Visitors are put through airport style scan. The exterior is undergoing reinvention and the entrance is not exactly clear once through the security checks but through the small door way you will find a ticket office. 8€ gets you access to the chapelle. Upon entering the building there is a gift shop and an audio guide stand. If not part of a guided tour I highly recommend an audio guide as they are well worth the extra 4.50€.
The lower ground gives the visitor a taste of the magic that they will experience in the main
chapel above. At the far end there is a statue of the sainted king who commissioned the chapel in the 13th century Louis IX of France. The walls and columns are painted in green red and blue with gold pattens the vaulted ceiling is blue with gold stars.
To reach the chapelle you need to take a spiral staircase. The ones used by the visitors were for the servants originally. There is a rail however I would have been happier if there had been a rope rail on the central spiral column. In short I hate spiral stair cases. I would have been a rubbish castle skivvie. The narrow spiral steps are in fact forgotten when you get to the top and step into the magnificent chapel.
The first thing that you notice is the height. Mostly dominated by windows. Now think about when it was built and that it only took 8.5 years and then you realised just how amazing the space is. The vaulted ceiling is like that down stairs and royal blue background displays gold stars representing the heavens.
Then there is the star of the space the windows. Each set depicts different scenes and stories and are different in look and feel of their neighbours. Some are more red others more prominently blue others there are more people. Some depict old testament, lives of the evangelists, the new testament, the passion of Christ central to the relics and Christianity and there is even windows devoted to King and later saint Louis.
The stone walls were also painted. The stone walls and statues also bear paint. When new the chapel would have been like a religious psychedelic religious building highlighted in gold in royal grandeur. In the 13th century world it must have been mind blowing.
Of course there have been damages and the windows have been restored but they are the biggest collection of 13th century stained glass in Europe having survived 7 centuries, revolution and 2 world wars. France is rightly proud of her.
Louis IX built the Sainte Chapelle or Holy Chapel for the purpose of housing sacred relics he was able to get from the Venetians. The original guardian for these relics was Constantinople’s Baldwin II. He required funds so pawned the relics to the Venetians. The relics were acquired for the sum of 135,000 Livres a very substantial sum to find and pay in the 13th Century. Amongst the relics acquired was the Crown of thorns thought to have been worn by Christ at the crucifixion. The crown and remaining relic can now be found in a special museum in Notre Dame de Paris rather than Sainte Chapelle.
The relics arrive in Paris during late summer 1239 the chapel however was not complete until 1248 nine years later. Louis also acquired a piece of the true cross and the lance used to pierce the side of Christ in 1246.
The chapel was concentrated in spring 1248 and had cost 40,000livre to build and glaze. The elaborate silver reliquary used to store the holy relics would more than double the cost of the church coming in at a whopping 100,000 livre. But for Louis the cost was to help him be close to god as the god appointed monarch and would help him be the most powerful monarch in western Europe. He know had a chapel that rivalled that of Charlemagne’s. And just like the Emperor in Constantinople in the east Louis could now get to his place of worse without leaving his palace. As well as being a religious act it was also a political act for Louis as he wanted to become the next Holy Roman Emperor.
For me this was a magical step back in time. It brings to life how important religion was to
life in medieval Europe was to both monarch and people alike before the reformation. As well as being a place to look around and be in owe of it is also a place of reflection, contemplation, peace and beauty. I felt restored after my visit. In many ways I felt sad that it was no longer used as a place of worship as I could imagine evensong by candle light would be magical.
The gift shop is lovely, I did walk away with a small silver fleur de lis pendant, a guide book and a book mark without feeling overly robbed. Had I the spare couple of hundred pound I would have happily invested in a tapestry.
Like Mont St Michel and Parthenon in Paris, Sainte Chapelle is looked after by the monuments of France; I hope that they remain under these kind custodians of these treasures, for that is what they are, national treasures of France.