Nothing can truly describe the feeling you get when you first set foot in Sainte-Chapelle, a small royal chapel just a short walk from Notre Dame. It is arguably the finest example of High-Gothic or Rayonnant architecture in the world, and it is well worth a visit when you're in Paris.
When you first enter the dark, moody and low-ceilinged lower level after having waited in the painfully slow security line for way too long, you think: “OK, this is cool, I guess,” but nothing can prepare you for what lies above in the upper chapel.
As you ascend a narrow stone spiral staircase, you may start to feel a hint of claustrophobia, but that suffering won't last for long, because before you know it, the ceiling opens up into the most brilliant display of color and light; it's like walking into a life-size kaleidoscope!
The Stained Glass
Nearly every single inch is covered in beautiful stained glass. In fact, there are 15 windows that are each about 50 feet high (15 meters)! It's amazing that such a soaring space made mostly of glass doesn't crumble to pieces, but that's where the pointed vaults come in, a hallmark of the Gothic architectural style. The meeting of the pointed arches at the ceiling create beautiful shapes and shadows, highlighted by a dark blue and gold-starred pattern that imitates the night sky.
Within these 15 stained glass windows are 1,113 separate scenes taken from the old and new testament. They tell the story of the Bible and how the holy relics that were once housed here made their way to Paris.
Its common practice in Catholicism to house holy objects inside ornate containers called a reliquary. Some are simply golden, decorated boxes, while more elaborate reliquaries look like miniature castles covered in gems. You can see some incredible reliquaries in the museums of Paris, including the Louve and the Musée du Cluny. I like to think of Sainte-Chapelle like a giant-sized reliquary turned inside-out – instead of the decoration being on the outside, all the detail is on the inside.
In addition to the stunning stained glass, you'll notice lots of painted patterns covering the vaults, walls, ceiling and floor. Painted architecture is somewhat rare among Gothic churches these days. That's because paint pigment is one of the first things to fade and deteriorate as the centuries pass, and it's not typically the first priority when it comes to restoration efforts.
Why Was it Built?
Built in the 13th century over a shockingly short period of only 7 years, Sainte-Chapelle was constructed to house some of the most precious Christian relics, including the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus Christ as he was crucified. It was commissioned by Louis IX and constructed as part of his royal palace, now the Palais de Justice. At that time, a building like this, with such revered objects inside, demonstrated the immense power and wealth of France to the rest of Europe. It highlighted Paris as a major destination for Christian pilgrims, and underscored its already dominant role in the dissemination of the Gothic style throughout Europe. Art History textbooks today still cite France as being the originator of the style.
Sainte Chapelle is one of the most heavily-restored monuments in all of France, and it was a serious undertaking. The delicate nature of stained glass and the combination of skills and knowledge needed to properly restore and preserve this building is impressive. From 2008 to 2014, experts in stained glass, painting, art history, stonework, metalwork, chemistry, restoration, and architecture contributed to the effort. In the end, the entire project cost somewhere around 10 million euros!
To read more about the incredible restoration, see this page.
Find Sainte-Chapelle tucked away into the Palais de Justice right in the middle of the Île de la Cité. It's right next to the big flower market as well as the Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette and other enemies of the French Revolution were imprisoned. You can buy a double-ticket if you wish to visit both Sainte-Chapelle and the Conciergerie in one day.
8 Boulevard du Palais, 75001 Paris
Metro Cité (Line 4)
Bus Lines 21, 27, 38, 85, 96 and Balabus
(All images ©Hannah Wilson)
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