Here we are again, back on the Île de la Cité, and into one of the most colourful churches on Earth. Like the Conciergerie, Sainte Chapelle is part of the Palais de la Cité complex which sits in the heart of the island.
The church was built over six years, starting in 1242, as per the wishes of King Louis IX to house some of the relics of Christ that he’d gathered over the years – most notably the Crown of Thorns, which was acquired in 1239. The large collection of relics raised the profile of Paris and led to it being known as a ‘New Jerusalem’, and a second capital of Christianity.
The church itself is split into two floors: the upper and lower chapels. The visit to Sainte-Chapelle starts in the lower chapel which was used by the palace staff to worship in, back in the day. Now it is home to the gift shop which dampens the mysticism somewhat, but it’s still pretty cool.
At the end of the room stands a statue of Louis IX who commissioned the building. Louis IX became the King of France at the age of 12 in 1226, but later became known as Saint Louis after his canonisation in 1297, 27 years after his death. He was said to be the perfect example of a Christian, and is the only French king to be made a saint.
I don’t think there’ll be any argument when I say that the upper chapel is really all you come to see. Unlike the lower chapel which was used solely for worship by the palace staff, the upper chapel was reserved for the king, and also housed the relics that Louis had collected throughout his lifetime.
It’s quite an experience when you walk up the narrow staircase from the lower chapel and exit into the upper and all you can see is colour. I mean, it is really fantastic.
The church owes much of its fame to the stained glass windows which cover the majority of the wall space. All in all, there are 15 windows, which depict biblical scenes running from Genesis through to the resurrection of Christ. What I didn’t know before going to Sainte-Chapelle was that you should ‘read’ these stained glass windows from left to right (which isn’t anything new, I know) but also from the bottom, rather than the top.
Another point of focus in the upper chapel is the Great Shrine at the front of the church. This used to display the 22 relics that were kept in the church in the 13th century. Now these relics, including a fragment of the cross Jesus was crucified on, and the Crown of Thorns, are now kept in the treasury in Notre-Dame.
Turning 180º reveals the western rose window. This apparently depicts the prophecy of the Apocalypse of Saint John. In the middle of the rose window, the image represents Jesus returning at the end of time to ‘judge the dead and the living’… OK. Having not being brought up Catholic, I’m not incredibly familiar with many of the stories represented in the stained glass windows, but either way, I can appreciate the workmanship that went into creating them. It’s really no wonder that so many people come to see them each year.
So that wraps up this part of the Île de la Cité ‘series’, and I hope they’re at least kind of enjoyable thus far. The next instalment will be on the Palais de Justice, not to be confused with the Palais de la Cité, but we’ll get to that!
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