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Sainte-Chapelle on the Ile de la Cite in Paris, France

Baldwin II, the last emperor of the Latin Empire in Constantinople, didn’t spend much time in his empire…and it wasn’t much of an empire, either. At the time, he controlled little more than a shrinking city. Broke and desperate, Baldwin spent most of his reign traveling the west begging for money and support in his effort to regain lost territory of his weakening realm. The rulers of Europe entertained him, but few offered any significant help.

Baldwin wasn’t without assets, though. He possessed a handful of Christian relics that were valued (monetarily as well as religiously) throughout Europe. One of his most valued pieces was purported to be the Crown of Thorns that the Roman soldiers placed on Christ’s head in mock subservience just before his crucifixion.

Louis IX (r. 1226-1270) of France, largely heralded for his piousness and defense of Christianity (and later sainted), would be interested in acquiring one of the instruments of the Passion. Unfortunately, Baldwin didn’t technically have the Crown. Venetian bankers held the relic as collateral against a large, outstanding loan. With the handsome sum of 135,000 livres (which was roughly 15% of Louis’ sovereign income in a year), Louis brought to France the Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross.

The curtain of stained glass windows in the upper chapel of Sainte-Chapelle

The sales were completed in 1241. In 1246, Louis broke ground on a chapel within his palace complex on the Ile de la Citè as an honored home for his prized relics. The Sainte-Chapelle cost Louis 60,000 livres to build (half the cost of the artifacts it was housing) and was completed in 1248.

By purchasing the relics, Louis had raised the profile of France significantly in Christendom and established Paris as a “New Jerusalem” in the eyes of Europe. Indeed, the acquisitions had established Paris as the second capital of Christianity.

Though little more than an afterthought at the time, Sainte-Chapelle would comprise a meaningful part of Louis’ impressive cultural legacy. The chapel represents the height of the Gothic style of architecture and the quintessential illustration of the Rayonnant style where ponderous mass was given up in favor of skeletal framework that allowed for more ornamentation and larger windows.

The 6,456 sq ft of stained glass windows are one of the most striking aspects of the building. They tell the story of the biblical history of the world culminating in Christ’s passion in the apse. As counterpoint, the rose window at the foot of the chapel represents the Apocalypse, or Christ’s triumphal return.

The window depicting the history of the church’s relics is the only window that is meant to be read boustrophedonically (ed. note: and I would be very, very disappointed if you read it any other way). If that weren’t interesting enough, this window must also be read from the bottom up. Thus, the relics journeyed up to the point of being housed in great kingdom of France.

The ceiling of Sainte-Chapelle's lower chapel

There are a few other notable things about Sainte-Chapelle. The relics were kept in a reliquary placed at the back of the apse and were brought out each Good Friday for public display (they have since been removed to Notre-Dame). On the exterior of the building, the pinnacle is laced with thorns to symbolize the church’s first relic. The church contains two chapels: the lower one for the palace staff and the upper one for the use of the royal family.

Like any building that has stood for over 700 years, Sainte-Chapelle has had its trials. The cedar spire burned down twice. The stained glass windows in the Lower Chapel were removed following a flood when the Seine burst its banks in 1690.

The French Revolutionaries were particularly unforgiving. They saw the building as a symbol of the oppressive interplay of religion and royalty. And who can blame them, with the fleur de lis decorating the chapel? In their zeal, the Revolutionaries removed the organ, scattered the relics, knocked down the spire, and turned the building into a flour depot. The statuary was narrowly rescued by Alexandre Lenoir. The stained glass windows were removed and stored. (They would be removed for safe-keeping again in anticipation of the Nazi invasion during WWII.)

Sainte Chapelle - Paris, France

Sainte-Chapelle's upper chapel

In the 1830s, the building was again converted into a church and restoration commenced under the aegis of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (who was principally responsible for the restoration of the Notre-Dame Cathedral).

Compared to the great Catholic Cathedrals, Sainte-Chapelle is a small building. Constructed only to be a fittingly adorned jewelry box for relics of meaningful religious significance, the church’s beauty makes it a jewel in its own right.

Sources: Discover France, French National Monuments

Architectural Style: Rayonnant Gothic
Completion: 1248
Adult rate : 8,50 €