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La Sainte-Chapelle
Saint Louis
Chapelle Basse
Chapelle Haute
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saint chapelle, face sud Sainte Chapelle could be considered a huge reliquary built to house the relics of the Crucifixion.
In 1239, Saint Louis bought the crown of thorns from Venetian merchants for 135,000 Pounds. Fragments of the Holy Cross fragments as well as instruments of torture were bought from Baudoin II, king of Jerusalem in 1241.
Saint Louis did not want these holy relics to be scattered.



Such precious relics deserved to be sheltered in a special place. Hence, Saint Louis chose to have a church built inside the Royal Palace on Cité isle in order to emphasize the close relationship between the Holy Relics and the monarchy (that palace was later replaced later by the Law Courts building). Indeed, building Sainte Chapelle was not only an act of faith; it was also a political deed.

The church, which has two levels, was consecrated on April 26th, 1248, so it is assumed that Sainte Chapelle was finished at this time. The starting date, however, is still unknown, as is the name of the master mason is also (probably Pierre de Montreuil or Jean de Chelles).

sainte chapelle, façade



chapelle haute The ground level was dedicated to parish services and the relics were kept on the upper level, which was directly connected to the aula, the main council room. This arrangement was probably inspired by Charlemagne's palace in Aachen. Other buildings were later added to Sainte Chapelle. An annex built on the northern side was destroyed in 1777, and there was a staircase which enabled people to reach the upper level on the southern side. From that time on, a choir screen was added to isolate clergymen and upper class people from common people.


Sainte Chapelle suffered from several fires (1630, 1777) and one flood. Nor did the French Revolution spare it: the outside ornamentation was damaged, especially the spire, whose fleurs-de-lis were considered a symbol of the French monarchy. Then, during the First Empire, the upper chapel was used as an archive warehouse, which led to severe damage and the stained glass windows were dismantled.

Dead souls rise from their grave, Musée de Cluny, Paris

Résurrection des morts


Restorations were made in the second part of the 19th century, led by the architects Félix Duban (from 1836 to 1848), Jean-Baptiste Lassus (from 1848 to 1857) and Emile Boeswillwald. Viollet-le-Duc occasionally cooporated with them without ever leading the project. The remains of the above mentioned staircase were destroyed (1849) and a new spire was built (1853). In 1857 restoration of the inside ornamentation was almost complete.

Virgin with Child, from Sainte Chapelle treasure, Musée du Louvre, Paris



There was much public debate regarding the restoration and several medievalists were consulted. In opposition to Viollet-le-Duc's theories, it was decided not to focus on the primitive state of the chapel but rather to consider every life stage of the monument.


Several choices were difficult, especially concerning the spire. It is not sure that the primitive King Saint Louis's chapel had one. However, a spire dating from 1630 was destroyed during the revolution. The architects proposed several designs and finally the design from the 15th century was chosen. An other dilemma lay in the choice of the inside decoration. Although investigations were led to retrieve pieces of the previous decoration, a great part of the decoration was pure invention. For example, the fleurs-de-lis on a blue background and the Castilian castles on a red background probably weren't there.




Other parts of the restoration, like the stained glass, are closer to the original model, because the architects had more information about them.

Nowadays, restorations are under way, partially due to repair the damage caused by the big storm of December 1999.



Lower Chapel


portail de la chapelle basse The entrance to the lower chapel is located under a porch. The coronation of Mary is represented on the tympanum. A Virgin with Child decorates the trumeau.


The nave has four bays. Construction of the vaults raised some technical problems due to the dimensions of the chapel. Indeed, its width (10.7 m) was too big compared to its height (6.6 m). A clever solution was found: small columns were added to reduce the width which had to be covered. They were then reinforced with tie beams.
tirants chapelle basse



travée chapelle basse The small elevation of the bays is decorated with trefoil arches topped by an oculus, each of which contains a medallion set with fake gems representing the apostles.
médaillon chapelle basse


The choir is made of a seven section hemicycle. The two black columns which stand in the middle were built to bear the weight of the heavy reliquary located in the upper chapel. Walls are covered by paintings. Golden fleur de lys on a blue background and golden castilian castles on a red background stand out. They symbolize Saint Louis and his mother, Blanche de Castille.
choeur de la chapelle basse



voûte de la chapelle basse The ribs are underlined with red strips with golden L. The vaults are decorated with fleur de lys, whereas the vault of the upper chapel is covered by golden stars: it's an example of the recurrent alternation between royal and divine symbols.


Upper Chapel




portail de la chapelle haute As with the lower chapel, the upper chapel portal is protected by a porch. Its tympanum represents the Last Judgement. It deserves more attention than the lower chapel tympanum.



Christ in majesty is surrounded by angels holding torture instruments.
tympan de la chapelle haute


linteua de la chapelle haute
On the lintel, angels call dead souls to rise from their graves. In the middle, Archangel Michael proceeds to the weighing of the souls while a devil is trying to cheat. On the trumeau stands Christ blessing the crowds. On the right hand-side archivolts there is a nice representation of Hell, with imps.



The base of the portal on both sides is decorated with low relief representing scenes of the Genesis.
ébrasements chapelle haute





The upper chapel has four bays and a seven section choir. Its walls are much taller than those of the lower chapel. They are in great part covered only by stained glasses.
The surface of the masonry is reduced to the strict minimum. The thinness of the columns between the stained glass windows is an example of an absolute mastery of gothic art. For strengthening purposes, the columns are reinforced with tie beams.
The 15 stained glasses windows (15.4 m height and 4.25 m width) are also considered as master pieces of the art of stained glass. Most of them date from the 13th century. They are composed with 1113 little pieces of glass.
chapelle haute



Legend of the stained glass windows :

A : history of the holy relics
B : book of kings
C : Esther
D : Judith and Job
E : Jeremy and Tobie
F : Ezechiel's visions
G : John the Baptist & Book of Daniel
H : Passion


I : John & Christ childhood
J : Joshua tree and Isaïe
K : Book of Judges
L : Deuteronom & Joshua
M : Book of numbers
N : exodus
O : Genesis


chapelle haute Each window group has four lancets topped by three rose windows. In the choir, the windows have only two lancets.
The central window in the choir is dedicated to the Passion. Its position, in front of the entrance, enhances it.


Further to the religious meaning, some windows are politically significant. This is the case for windows A,B and C. Window A shows the history of the Holy Relics, from the discovery of the Holy Cross by Saint Helen, to the transfer to the French Kingdom by Saint Louis.


Saint Louis holds the relics and considers himself as a worthy heir to the Kings of Israel. This clear link is emphasized by the next window B, which shows the history of some the most famous Kings of Israel (from Saul to Solomon).
The Sainte Chapelle is thus a demonstration of the power of King Saint Louis. In window D, the writings are not in Latin, but in French, which shows Saint Louis's will of domination over the Church.

history of the Holy Relics




niche de Blanche de Castille
Window C is just above the recess dedicated to Saint Louis'mother Blanche de Castille. There is a clear link here between her and the story of Esther which is shown in the stained glasses. A parallel is drawn between these women who both saved their people. Blanche ruled the French kingdom during Saint Louis's childhood and the seventh crusade while Esther begged Persian King Assuerus and thus prevented her people from being slaughtered.



It is worth noticing that Blanche's recess is decorated with golden Castilian castles on a red background while Saint Louis's recess in front of it is decorated with golden fleur de lys on a blue background.
niche de Saint Luois


rose Among the stained glass, the 16th century rose is noteworthy. Its style is flamboyant gothic. Some of its colours (especially the green) can't be found in the other 13th century stained glasses because it was not technically possible to obtain it. The rose shows the Apocalypse around an enthroned Christ in the central oculus.




Statues of the apostles stand on each side of the nave. Leant against the wall, they symbolize the columns of the Church. Unfortunately, it has now become impossible to identify the apostles. They once had distinctive marks but that have now disappeared. They have undergone many restorations.




médaillon The other pieces of decoration are medallions with paintings of martyrs and angels around them.



There are also angels above the recesses of Saint Louis and Blanche. This is to remind the onlooker that the king is the Lord's anointed.
détail du décor de la niche de Saint Louis



châsse The reliquary, built on the pattern of the chapel, is also adorned with angels.



Animal and vegetable patterns complete the decoration of the paintings and capitals.



Thanks to Guiseppe Decandia for his corrections.

English glossary (link to the excellent work of Jane Vadnal)


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