Sunday, 30 October 2011

A showcase for relics

Through the middle of Paris runs the Seine, a fine river. In the middle of the river is an island where the first settlers, the Romans, found safety. In the middle of the island is a palace, the Palais de la Cité, home to successive generations of the Capetian monarchy. And in the middle of the palace, at the very heart of the city, is a glittering gothic jewel casket - the Sainte-Chapelle. Ask those generic creatures the man-and-woman-in-the-street to name the famous attractions of Paris and the list is likely to be succinct and predictable. Saint-Chapelle probably won't feature in the top ten, but in a city endowed with so many riches it may well stand as the finest of them all.

Saint-Chapelle is two chapels built one above the other. The lower, a vaulted crypt dedicated to Our Lady, is a delight of plaster and paint hosting some of the oldest surviving wall paintings to be found in the city, although rather damaged by floods and its use as a grain store during the Revolution. Sadly the mystical effect of this space is today diminished by the siting of a large gift shop in the body of the chapel itself. But enough remains to imagine how it must once have looked, before removal of the altars and funerary slabs from the floor.

These days the upper chapel is reached by a narrow and unassuming spiral staircase in a shadowy corner of the crypt. It leaves visitors quite unprepared for what they are about to witness and the gasps are audible as successive climbers step out into the space above. Its dimensions are modest enough: 104 feet long, 34 feet wide, a single nave of four bays ending in a seven-sided apse. Nothing especially remarkable so far. But then we come to the statistic that truly marks out Sainte-Chapelle as a wonder of the world: 6,458 square feet of stained glass with barely a supporting pillar between each window. The upper chapel is an engineering marvel, a cage of shattered light in which words and numbers cease to be important. All we can do is stand in awe. We might be in heaven, or close to it, which was the intended effect. Because Saint-Chapelle was built for one purpose - to house the holiest relics in Christendom.

In 1239 King Louis IX of France, a young man not long come of age, newly married and with ambition aplenty, bought the crown of thorns of Christ's Passion. The seller, Baudouin II de Courtenay, the last reigning emperor of Constantinople, was in desperate straits touring Europe with a begging bowl to raise the cash needed to fund the defence of his realm. Louis paid a high price, one hundred and thirty five thousand livres, but it was an astute political investment calculated to make his seat of power a beacon of Christianity for centuries to come. For him personally it also secured canonisation, the only French king to achieve a place among the ranks of saints. Other relics were to follow, splinters and a nail from the True Cross. Louis spent a further one hundred thousand livres on a vast gilded reliquary to contain his precious  purchases. Every year, on Good Friday, they were displayed by his priests in an act of solemn piety.

Today the relics are gone, relegated to the treasury of Notre Dame a short walk away. Louis' expensive reliquary was unceremoniously melted down during the Revolution. But miraculously through all the nation's upheavals Sainte-Chapelle remains, its slender filigree steeple (the fourth in all) an elegant feature of the Parisian skyline. The stained glass has been officially declared a national monument inseparable from the architecture. During both World Wars the windows were taken down and they have been painstakingly restored, panel by panel, ever since.

With binoculars, a detailed guidebook and plenty of time, it would be possible to pick out all the biblical and apocryphal stories told in every lancet and roundel, stories that would once have been understood by all without the need for such interpretation. But on a sunny day it is better to stand in the centre of this dazzling space and let the kaleidoscope of light play all around you. Perhaps I am not the average man-or-woman-in-the-street, but for me Sainte-Chapelle is the Parisian number one.


  1. It is a truly marvellous place, and the most sophisticated piece of Gothic architecture that I know. It is the feeling of space and light that is breathtaking.

    The only thing on which I disagree is that the stories in the stained glass would have been understood by all. And this is something on which I am sure PhDs have been formed. The detail is too small, the windows too high up for people to even see the stories portrayed. And even if they could be viewed close up, they would only be understood if the viewer knew the story that was being represented. This being the case, the question of who these windows were for fascinates me. Obviously, they are a spectacle of craftmanship and beauty. But were they made for God? Or to make the building more holy - by somehow sprinkling the architecture with interpretations of Biblical stories and the saints' lives? Was there some more secular reason - a display of wealth, a craftsman (or woman - it is possible) delighting in their own skill? I suspect there are several other possibilities, and none can be separated out from the other.

  2. Interesting questions Ben. Biblical stories in pictures were normally instructive for a congregation that was mostly illiterate. However, Sainte-Chapelle was within the bounds of a royal palace and the laity who attended mass in the nave would likely have been well educated. The nave windows depict an Old Testament narrative cycle of the life of the Jewish people while the apse windows (above the site of the reliquary) tell the life of Christ, dwelling at length on the Passion.

    As you say, most of the scenes are far too high to be seen unaided, something I hadn't really thought about before now. Interestingly they do not tell the hagiography of the saints, although the sculpture and painted decoration does, and this is much lower down at eye level.

    I suspect you are right on all counts: the joy of consummate craftsmanship, a display of vast wealth and a route to heaven for the patron. Whatever the reason(s)the sum result is a treasure.