From the lands of Charlemagne does THL Eldred Ælfwald send greetings!
Just across the Ile-de-la-Cité from Notre Dame lies the Palais de de la Cité. Within the modern-day walls of law and order rests a Gothic jewel: Sainte-Chapelle. Sainte-Chapelle was commissioned by St. Louis (Louis IX) in 1242 to be a Royal chapel and a shrine for the relics of Christ's Passion--including the most precious relic of all: the Crown of Thorns. St. Louis was the son of Hugh Capet, the first of the Capetian kings of France. Hugh was appointed as king by the ruling nobles of France, and upon his death, his wife Blanche of Castile, served as regent for the young Louis. To justify his claim to the royal throne, St. Louis used Sainte-Chappelle and the holy relics as prominent symbols of his authority.
As we approached Sainte-Chapelle, we noticed how small it is in comparison to its contemporaries, such as Notre Dame. It is hidden within a courtyard of the Palais de la Cité with only the roof and small spire visible to the casual passers-by. Like many early Gothic structures, Sainte-Chapelle has simple buttresses--an architectural innovation that allowed taller structures to be built. Gargoyles protrude from the top of every buttress to guide water away from the chapel walls, however time and pollution have not been kind to them. The spire was added in the 15th century and rebuilt in the 19th.
Because it was the Royal chapel, only the Royal entourage and the palace staff were allowed to worship at Sainte-Chapelle. We entered Sainte-Chapelle via the entrance once used by the palace staff into the lower chapel, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The first impression is one of ponderous darkness. Little light reaches the lower chapel via the small and highly placed windows. The walls are decorated with blank trefoil arches, and its columns bear alternating designs of France's gold fleurs-de-lys on azure, and the golden tower on a red field motif of Castile. An interesting feature is a series of interior columns that are the equivalents of flying buttresses. The ceiling of the lower chapel is painted to look like a starry sky, and the timeworn funerary slabs of the treasurers and canons of Sainte-Chapelle pave the floor. With a guide to lead us, we ascended the spiral staircases hidden in the corners of the chapel.
The upper chapel is the glory of Sainte-Chapelle. Over 6,400 square feet of stained glass occupy the walls of the chapel, and at the west end is a beautiful and unusual rose window depicting the Apocalypse. The glass fills the chapel with scintillating jewels of light that is truly awe-inspiring. The interior height is almost twice the width of the chapel giving it an extremely lofty appearance due to forced perspective. Since the upper chapel was the shrine of the holy relics, the attention to its design was extremely lavish. The buttresses appear to be non-existent in comparison to the sheer area of the windows, and they are carved to seem as if they are delicate clusters of smaller columns so their mass is hardly noticeable. About two-thirds of the glass in the windows is original dating to the 13th century. The rose window is a 15th century addition to the chapel.
As previously noted, Sainte-Chapelle was designed to promote St. Louis' claim to the throne. This is most evident in the content and placement of several of the stained glass windows. The windows are arranged starting from Genesis in the north west corner of the chapel, and all but one lancet depicts a biblical story. Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Isaiah and the Jesse Tree, the Childhood of Christ (St. John), The Passion, St. John the Baptist, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Tobias, Judith and Job, Ester, Kings, and the final lancet depicts the history of the Relics of the Passion.
The unusual thing about the windows is that the placement of the book of Numbers is directly over the King's stall (and out of sequence with the books of the Old Testament). Every scene from Numbers depicts the coronation of a prophet or king--a rather blatant message! The book of Kings is, of course, another obvious message. The inclusion of the story of Ester is a tribute to Blanche of Castile, who ruled as regent twice in her lifetime, highlighting her role as custodian of the realm for the rightful monarch(s). The story of the relics demonstrates St. Louis' right to the throne in that by allowing Louis to have custody of "the complete set" the Pope indirectly was blessing his authority--an extremely powerful support in the Middle Ages!
Our guide at Sainte-Chapelle made an interesting comment to us at the end of our tour. St. Louis was enamored of the stories of King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail. St. Louis's set of Holy Relics did not include the Grail. However, the floor plan of Sainte-Chapelle resembles a cup--a cup filled with Holy Light. Perhaps St. Louis did have the Grail after all….
THL Eldred Ælfwald