The Holy Chapel, a wonder of Paris – Meanderings through France
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
After 7 years of restoration the “Sainte Chapelle” this unique masterpiece of Flamboyant Gothic architecture set in the heart of the oldest district of Paris is back to its former splendour. It’s within walking distance from Notre Dame de Paris and you shouldn’t miss to see its remarkable stained-glass windows after visiting the Cathedral. It was built during the 13th century by King Louis IX one of the best loved and admired French kings who was canonized in 1298, 22 years after he died.
It all started in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade when Western Knights and Venetian soldiers sacked the city of Constantinople. Against all rules of chivalry they plundered the Christian palaces and churches creating a deep gap between the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches for the centuries to come. The Holy Cross and the Holy Crown were stolen in the imperial Boukoleon Palace and kept by the Latin Emperor until 1238 when they were pledged to a Venetian merchant. But the Emperor was not able to pay back the loan within 4 months as was agreed and the Venetian sold them to King Louis IX for a huge amount of money. Louis IX paid 135,000 Pounds for them at a time when the annual Royal revenue reached 235,000 Pounds! Year after year he bought other Holy Relics such as a stone from the Holy Sepulchre, a piece of the Holy Spear or a sample of the Holy Blood… Truthful or fake, we’ll never know.
It soon became obvious that a very special place was to be built to shelter these very special relics and Louis IX decided to build a Holy Chapel next to his own Palace located on the Ile de la Cité, one of the Parisian islands. It’s amazing to think that it took only 7 years, from 1242 to 1248, to the architects, masons, stone cutters and other artisans to achieve this masterpiece standing as high as a cathedral. The relics remained there until the French Revolution when the Chapel was plundered and most of them mysteriously disappeared and never were to be seen again. Only the Holy Crown has survived from this difficult time and you can see it when visiting the Trésor de Notre Dame, the Notre Dame of Paris treasure.
With its spire, sculptures and furniture gone, its amazing stained-glass-windows broken, the Chapel was left in a poor state and remained this way until the middle of the 19th century. It seems that French people rediscovered the Middle Ages when Victor Hugo wrote his famous novel “Notre Dame de Paris” and got interested again in the fate of the Holy Chapel when he wrote an article calling for its rescue. Huge works of renovations were undertaken and it took 26 years to give back the Chapel its full glory and save it from ruin.
Visiting the Holy Chapel
Getting to the Chapel is not so easy! Today the Royal Palace has been turned into the Law Courts of Paris and you’ll have to go through security check, go all the way down corridors and cross a courtyard full of lawyers and policemen… But once inside you enter a totally different word and even if the Chapel was deconsecrated during the revolution you will still feel the quiet and serene atmosphere created for the relics. A haven of peace in the middle of the Parisian hubbub! First you’ll get to the lower chapel and its wooden painted panelled walls originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Then going up narrow stairs you will enter the upper chapel. Get ready to get struck by the light and colours filling the air. All around you extraordinary stained-glass-windows separated by thin stone arches reaching high up to a dark blue ceiling studded with stars. On a sunny day the colourful sunbeams lay over everything and everyone and you just want to stand there and look up at the 13 windows and the rose window depicting the New Testament, the Passion, the life of John the Evangelist, the Book of Revelation… After 7 years of restoration they have regained their original luminosity and transparency, a true feast for the eye!
The Law Courts of Paris should move to some other place in 2017 and with luck the buildings will be turned into a museum dedicated to the Middle Ages bringing together the Holy Chapel, the “Conciergerie” and the former Royal Palace. An opportunity to create more clear space around the Chapel that is presently surrounded by buildings to close to allow a good view of the elegant and high edifice. Just wait and see!
Opening Hours: Mar 1-Oct 31: 9:30 a.m.- 6 p.m.
Nov 1- Feb 28 : 9 a.m.- 5 p.m.
From May 15 till Sep 15 the Chapel is open till 9:30 p.m. every Wednesday
For more information: www.sainte-chapelle.monuments-nationaux.fr
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny