Sainte-Chapelle: A Jewelry Box for Medieval Paris

Sainte-Chapelle was one of our highlights of visiting Paris. It is a gorgeous medieval church that was built in a speedy few years, with construction beginning in 1238 and ending shortly before the church was consecrated on April 26, 1248. (For comparison’s sake, Notre-Dame took 200 years). The Gothic chapel was commissioned by Louis IX (1214-1290) who purchased a valuable collection of Passion relics including Jesus’ Crown of Thorns and the Image of Edessa (a square-shaped piece of cloth upon which Jesus’ face had been miraculously imprinted). In 1246, fragments of the True Cross and the Holy Lance were added to the collection. Having these items in his position gave Louis IX a lot of prestige, and marked him as the head of western Christianity. Sainte-Chapelle was built to provide a suitable place to proudly display these Holy items. Even today, the church is described as Paris’ grandest “jewelry box.”

Sainte-Chapelle is located on the Île de la Cité, one of two islands in the River Seine that lie at the heart of Paris (the second one being the Île Saint-Louis). The western end of the Île de la Cité has held a palace (the Palais de la Cité) since the middle of the 5th century, and the eastern end has been dedicated to religion since at least the ninth century (it’s where Notre-Dame can be found). Sainte-Chapelle was built within the grounds of the Palais de la Cité, which was the main residence of the French Kings between the 6th and 14th centuries. The site of the former palace now consists mainly of buildings that make up the 19th century Palais de Justice. Remaining palace structures include the Conciergerie (which acted as a prison during the French Revolution and held more than 2,700 people destined for the guillotine, including Marie Antoinette), four towers located along the Seine river, and Sainte-Chapelle.

You can see the four towers in the photo below.

Below is a picture of the exterior of Sainte-Chapelle today. It’s tough to get a good photo of the whole building, as its lower level is enclosed by other structures.

The Palais de Justice is located right beside Sainte-Chapelle (to the right in the photo below).

Below is the entry into Sainte-Chapelle (there was some restoration work going on, hence the netting).

Below is the balcony on the second floor (the Upper Chapel).

Close-up of the sculpted relief that appears on the balcony.

Below is a drawing of Sainte-Chapelle (on the upper right) that shows where it was located as part of the Palais de la Cité.

Drawing of the Palais de la Cité following the construction of Sainte-Chapelle, by Viollet-le-Duc. From Wikipedia.

Below is an image of the Palais de la Cité as it appeared in 1412-1416, as illustrated in Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Sainte-Chapelle can be seen on the right, the royal residence in the middle, the Great Hall to the left.

Detail from the month of June, Haymaking, in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry . An illuminated manuscript, Netherlandish. A devotional book of hours. Circa 1400. From Wikipedia.

Below is a great picture of Sainte-Chapelle from 1715 (before the construction of buildings that obscure its lower level today).

Louis XIV arrives at the Palais de la Cite to preside over a session of the Parlement de Paris (1715). Pierre-Denis Martin (1673-1742). From Wikipedia.

There are two chapels on two different floors that can be visited at Sainte-Chapelle. The Upper Royal Chapel on the second floor is the star attraction, as it features one of the most extensive 13th-century stained glass collections anywhere in the world. The upper chapel was built for the King, while the lower chapel was built for the common people. Although the Holy Relics are no longer housed within Sainte-Chapelle¹, the stained-glass windows impress all on their own. There are 15 windows, each of them 15 metres high, that depict 1,113 scenes from the Old and New Testaments, recounting the history of the world until the arrival of the relics in Paris. Nearly two-thirds of the windows are authentic to the 13th-century, which is itself a miracle considering Paris’ turbulent history (the French Revolution and the Nazi occupation during World War II come readily to mind). A large rose window was added to the Upper Chapel in 1490.

I’ll start with pictures from the Upper Royal Chapel.

It is tragic for me that my camera was not up to the task of being able to take pictures that truly represent how incredibly breathtakingly beautiful Sainte-Chapelle is. There were a million things for my tiny little (scratched) lens to try and focus on. I’ll do my best with the photos I have, below, to show what our visit was like. Further down in the post I’ll add some shots from Pixabay. But they still fall short. It truly is a place you have to see for yourself, hopefully on a day with some sunlight. The church has the ability to knock a modern viewer off their feet; it must have been an absolutely unreal experience for visitors in the 13th century.

What you can’t see in the photo below is how rich the colours of the ceiling are, because the camera is trying to catch the light from the stained-glass. If you keep scrolling below, though, you’ll see some pictures where the camera gets to focus solely on the ceiling details.

The 12 stone figures that adorn the room represent the 12 Apostles. They each carry a disc with a consecration cross; these crosses were traditionally marked on the pillars of a church at its consecration.

I love the hand-drawn details on this painted column, below.

Here are some details from the balcony on the second floor.

Looking from the balcony back into the chapel.

Here are some pictures from the Lower Chapel. It is stunning in its own right, with those incredible ceilings. This chapel served as a parish church for all of the palace inhabitants. It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

I love the vibrant blue and rich gold details.

A statue of Louis IX. He is the only canonized King of France (proclaimed in 1297), known as Saint Louis. Lots of cities, churches, and even French royal descendants were named after him (he was already the 9th of his name, but I’m sure the canonization helped influence its continued popularity).

Several of the columns are decorated with Castilian castles in homage to Blanche of Castille, the mother of Saint Louis.

Here are a few photos from Pixabay.

Sainte-Chapelle became a historical monument in 1862. I would insist that you include it on your list of Paris must-sees. We did it as part of a tour that also included Notre-Dame. If you had to choose between the two, I would recommend Sainte-Chapelle. It outranks Notre-Dame based on its sheer beauty. Although it can be a busy attraction, it is nowhere near as crazy as its more famous Île de Cité counterpart.

¹The Holy Relics were dispersed during the French Revolution, and the reliquaries were melted down (including the Great Casket that had cost Louis IX twice the amount it took to build Sainte-Chapelle). The Crown of Thrones can be seen at nearby Notre-Dame.

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