Paris Reflections, Fall Edition N.3: Sainte-Chapelle, Palais de la Cité
The Sainte-Chapelle is an example of Rayonnant Gothic architecture with its emphasis on verticality and architectural complexity. Elongated and vibrantly stained-glass windows, ornate gables, sumptuous interior, intricate ironwork, and elaborate goldsmithery all reinforce its structural elegance. The appearance of red, blue, and gold polychromy, as well as star patterns and fleurs-de-lis visible on the abacuses and vaulted ceilings add to Sainte-Chapelle’s general splendor and magnificence. It measures 36 meters long, 17 meters wide, and 42.5 meters in height, excluding the spire 33 meter spire which is adorned with apostles. The sheer amount of luminosity entering through the stained-glass windows serves as a direct metaphor for religious illumination and enlightenment sought by a pious population. Supporting buttresses adorned with gargoyles convey of sense of uniformity, as well as rhythm and movement to the entirety of the exterior complex. A giant rose window of the upper chapel prominently adorns the western façade.
The Carolingian reliquary was founded by King Louis IX (the future Saint Louis) in order to house his Holy Relics of the Passion. In 1239 Saint Louis purchased the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ for 135,000 livres. This religious and political act not only reaffirmed the monarch’s devotion to Christ, but it also solidified France’s powerful position in Western Christendom. Later, he also obtained a fragment of the True Cross from Baudouin II and other relics associated with the Passion, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. The artifacts have since been dispersed to other locations. The Gothic palatine reliquary chapel inspired subsequent holy chapels constructed by the monarch and his descendants. Sainte-Chapelle is all that remains of Saint Louis’s palace, along with part of the Tour Bonbec. It served as the royal residence for the Kings of France until 1370, housing the financial and judicial administrative seats of power.
Sainte-Chapelle has undergone a series of alterations and modifications beginning in the 13th century with Philippe le Bel. The 15th century and the Renaissance were no exceptions. In 1776 a fire ravaged the structure, destroying the Galerie des Merciers causing the subsequent demolition of the Trésor des Chartes. Severely damaged during the French Revolution, it underwent significant restoration between the years of 1840 – 1868. Following the precise guidelines of Viollet-le-Duc and his archeological studies, highly skilled architects successfully restored the Sainte-Chapelle to its former 13th century glory.
It is composed of two storeys of similar surface area, but of different heights. Each has a specific function. The upper floor rests at the same level as the royal apartments. It housed the relics and served as a special zone for the king, his entourage, and special guests. The lower floor housed the palace parish and was dedicated to Our Lady. It was a zone for the king’s soldiers, servants, and courtiers. Its low vault height of approximately 6.6 meters gives the chapel the impression of a crypt. Its central nave is 6 meters wide and is complemented by side-aisles measuring 2 meters which form the ambulatory. Small, interior buttresses are present, as well as 140 capitals – an architectural element typical in the 13th century Île-de-France region.
Author: Jewel K. Goode, Independent Curator, Photographer, and Educator
Sources: Finance, Laurence de. The Sainte-Chapelle: Palais de la Cité. Éditions du patrimoine, Centre des monuments nationaux, Paris (2015).