Sainte-Chapelle: Let There Be Light

Let there be light - the wondrous Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

At this early hour, the sun was kissing the top corner of a window. Under her magic touch, the glass sparkled in a myriad of colours. Concerts are often held here at sunset, when the light is said to be spectacular, yet even at this hour the air around me glistened.

The Sainte-Chapelle proved as spectacular as promised. By arriving early, I avoided the queues and had the place as much to myself as possible in the heart of Paris in summer. By the time I left the queues had swollen to ridiculous lengths (the first for security, the next to buy tickets), and both the upper and lower chapels had filled with both bodies and noise. It was time to find a restorative café crème. Perhaps in the Tuileries.

Beginnings of the Sainte-Chapelle

Louis IX began the Chapelle in 1238 to house his collection of relics. This included a piece of the True Cross plus The Crown of Thorns which he had acquired from the Baldwin II, the Latin Emperor of Constantinople. He paid the exorbitant price of 135,000 livres (the construction of the chapel, for comparison, cost only 60,000 livres). Both the Crown of Thorns and the True Cross are now in Notre Dame, and displayed only on Good Friday.

This reflects the character of King Louis. He believed his role as a “lieutenant of God on Earth,” was more important than his duties as king. Louis IX was renown for his charity, founding many hospitals and houses throughout France. Beggars were fed from his table, and he ministered to the needs of lepers.

Louis IX also introduced many reforms to France, including to the legal system. He outlawed trial by ordeal, and introduced the presumption of innocence: ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat (the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on the one who denies).

Under the ‘golden-century of St-Louis’ (he reigned for some 40 years) France rose to dominance in Europe, politically, economically and culturally. The Sorbonne was founded in 1257, and soon became a major leader in theological thought. As well as being the largest and wealthiest European kingdom, France became the centre of the arts and intellectual thought. Considered a primus inter pares (first amongst equals) Louis was seen as the quintessential example of the Christian prince, and was frequently chosen as arbiter in disputes amongst the other European rulers.

Louis’ patronage of the arts led to innovation in both Gothic art and architecture. The style elements of the Sainte-Chapelle, which became his personal chapel, were religiously copied. (Interestingly, it is believed the design of the chapel was inspired, in part, by the abbey of Mont St. Michel, especially the large Salle des Hôts.) Louis went on to die of either the plague or dysentery during the Eight Crusade and was canonised in 1297, the only French king to be canonised.

Let there be light - the wondrous Sainte-Chapelle, Paris
Even the lower chapel is stunning


Sainte-Chapelle, A Royal Chapel

I entered the Sainte-Chapelle by old spiral stairs, worn down by the centuries. These led to the chapelle basse (lower chapel), which was used as a parish church by the palace servants. The low ceiling is supported by flying buttresses ornamented with the royal fleur-de-lis. It serves as a firm support for the chapel above, allowing the upper chapel to soar to the heavens. Only a few windows adorned the lower chapel, but even so the glass was amazing. It has to be one of the more beautiful settings for a gift shop.

Some narrow – and steep – stone spiral stairs led up to the main chapel – the chapelle haute, used by the king and his courtiers. Built between 1238 and 1248, the chapelle with its glorious windows is one of the greatest achievements of the Rayonnant period of Gothic art, marked by its sense of weightlessness and strong vertical emphasis. That it has survived war and revolution – and more war – is in itself a miracle.

Each window holds so many stories, each with so much detail, I felt it would take me a lifetime of visits to read them all. The walls consist almost entirely of glass: 15 stained-glass windows, each some 15 metres high, aglow with every colour, including a red which has inspired the saying ‘wine the colour to Sainte-Chapelle’s windows’. Covering over 600 square metres, these windows have over 1100 scenes depicting the history of the world, from the Old and New Testaments, through to when the relics arrived in Paris. The Rose Window is dedicated to the Apocalypse.

Aside from the windows, which dominate the eyes as soon as you enter, is the sense of light and spaciousness. The Chapelle seems to soar to the heavens, and is filled with a light so often lacking in other buildings of the time. The whole building feels weightless, untouched by the burdens of the centuries.

Let there be light - the wondrous Sainte-Chapelle, Paris
Simply awe-inspiring


A royal chapel, Sainte-Chapelle was part of the medieval Palais de le Cité, where the Kings of France resided until the 14th century. This is on the Île de la Cité, which has always been the heart of Paris. Beside it is the Concierge; once part of the Capetian Royal Palace, it became famous during the revolution as the prison where Marie Antoinette was held before her execution.

By the time Louis IX actually paid for the relics they had been pawned to the Venetians. Two Dominican friars brought the relics from Venice to Paris, arriving in August, 1239. After celebrations which lasted a week, Louis dressed as a penitent and walked barefoot as he carried the relics himself for their final journey. (The scene is depicted on one the windows in the Chapelle.)

Bedazzled by light, I walked out into the glorious sunshine of summer in Paris. Ah, Paris.


The Literary Traveller 

Set in Paris and the French countryside,  Fantômas is a fast paced crime / detective thriller. Written in 1911, and translated from the French in 1915, it has a very modern feel, and its influences can be seen in the likes of writers such as Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

For my review, click here.

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2 Thoughts on “Sainte-Chapelle: Let There Be Light

  1. There’s such gorgeous light there! I still remember when I saw it for the first time, in 1994 – a woman was posing on one of the benches just in a spot where the light hit her face, while her boyfriend took photos. It was just one of those images that stays with you for years.

    • anneharrison on July 18, 2017 at 9:49 pm said:

      I agree Dee; although I had been to Paris before I had never been to Sainte-Chapelle. I just didn’t think it could be as wonderful as it was meant to be. Silly me – a magical place.

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