Sainte-Chapelle

The Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) is a royal medieval Gothic chapel, located near the Palais de la Cité, on the Île de la Cité in the heart of Paris.

Begun some time after 1239 and consecrated on 26 April 1248, the Sainte-Chapelle is considered among the highest achievements of the Rayonnant period of Gothic architecture. It was commissioned by King Louis IX of France to house his collection of Passion relics, including Christ's Crown of Thorns—one of the most important relics in medieval Christendom.

Along with the Conciergerie, the Sainte-Chapelle is one of the earliest surviving buildings of the Capetian royal palace on the Île de la Cité. Although damaged during the French Revolution, and restored in the 19th century, it has one of the most extensive 13th-century stained glass collection anywhere in the world.

The Sainte-Chapelle, in the courtyard of the royal palace on the Île de la Cité (now part of a later administrative complex known as La Conciergerie), was built to house Louis IX's collection of relics of Christ, which included the Crown of Thorns, the Image of Edessa and some thirty other items.

As well as serving as a place of worship, the Sainte-Chapelle played an important role in the political and cultural ambitions of King Louis and his successors. With the imperial throne at Constantinople occupied by a mere Count of Flanders and with the Holy Roman Empire in uneasy disarray, Louis' artistic and architectural patronage helped to position him as the central monarch of western Christendom, the Sainte-Chapelle fitting in to a long tradition of prestigious palace chapels.

The royal chapel is a prime example of the phase of Gothic architectural style called "Rayonnant", marked by its sense of weightlessness and strong vertical emphasis. It stands squarely upon a lower chapel, which served as parish church for all the inhabitants of the palace, which was the seat of government. The king was later recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church. His title became Saint Louis.

The contemporary visitor entering the courtyard of the Royal Palace would have been met by the sight of a grand ceremonial staircase (the Grands Degres) to their right and the north flank and eastern apse of the Sainte-Chapelle to their left. The chapel exterior shows many of the typical characteristics of Rayonnant architecture - deep buttresses surmounted by pinnacles, crocketted gables around the roof-line and vast windows subdivided by bar tracery.

The internal division into upper and lower chapels is clearly marked on the outside by a string-course, the lower walls pierced by smaller windows with a distinctive spherical triangle shape. Despite its decoration, the exterior is relatively simple and austere, devoid of flying buttresses or major sculpture and giving little hint of the richness within.

No designer-builder is named in the archives concerned with the construction. In the 19th century it was assumed (as with so many buildings of medieval Paris) to be the work of the master mason Pierre de Montreuil, who worked on the remodelling of the Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis and completed the south transept façade of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Modern scholarship rejects this attribution in favour of Jean de Chelles or Thomas de Cormont, while Robert Branner saw in the design the hand of an unidentified master mason from Amiens.

The Parisian palatine chapel, built to house a reliquary, was itself like a precious reliquary turned inside out (with the richest decoration on the inside). Although the interior is dominated by the stained glass, every inch of the remaining wall surface and the vault was also richly coloured and decorated. Analysis of remaining paint fragments reveal that the original colours were much brighter than those favoured by the 19th-century restorers and would have been closer to the colours of the stained glass.

The quatrefoils of the dado arcade were painted with scenes of saints and martyrs and inset with painted and gilded glass, emulating Limoges enamels, while rich textiles hangings added to the richness of the interior. Above the dado level, mounted on the clustered shafts that separate the great windows, are 12 larger-than-life-sized sculpted stone figures representing the 12 Apostles (six of these are replicas - the damaged originals are now in the Musée du Moyen Age). Each carries a disk marked with the consecration crosses that were traditionally marked on the pillars of a church at its consecration. Niches on the north and south sides of the chapel are the private oratories of the king and of his mother, Blanche of Castile.

The most famous features of the chapel, among the finest of their type in the world, are the great stained glass windows, for whose benefit the stone wall surface is reduced to little more than a delicate framework. Fifteen huge mid-13th-century windows fill the nave and apse, while a large rose window with Flamboyant tracery (added to the upper chapel c.1490) dominates the western wall.

Despite some damage the windows display a clear iconographical programme. The three windows of the eastern apse illustrate the New Testament, featuring scenes of The Passion (centre) with the Infancy of Christ (left) and the Life of John the Evangelist (right). By contrast, the windows of the nave are dominated by Old Testament exemplars of ideal kingship/queenship in an obvious nod to their royal patrons. The cycle starts at the western bay of the north wall with scenes from the Book of Genesis (heavily restored).

The next ten windows of the nave follow clockwise with scenes from Exodus, Joseph, Numbers/Leviticus, Joshua/Deuteronomy, Judges, (moving to the south wall) Jeremiah/Tobias, Judith/Job, Esther, David and the Book of Kings. The final window, occupying the westernmost bay of the south wall brings this narrative of sacral kingship right up to date with a series of scenes showing the rediscovery of Christ's relics, the miracles they performed, and their relocation to Paris in the hands of King Louis himself.