History of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris History of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris

History of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris

Built on the Ile de la Cité in the heart of the French capital, the Sainte-Chapelle de Paris, also known as the Sainte-Chapelle du Palais was specially built to house Christian artefacts like the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the True Cross as well as other relics related to the crucifixion of Christ.

A monument fit for the most beautiful relics

At the beginning of the 13th century, Emperor Baudouin II de Courtenay, the last emperor of Constantinople urgently needs money and in order to get it, he offers to sell his most precious religious artefact: the Crown of Thorns, placed on Jesus’ head before the crucifixion. In 1237, the Emperor leaves for a European voyage hoping to find a buyer and an ally to join him in his latest crusade. He meets with French king Louis IX. While the king is not interested in joining the emperor’s crusade, he is interested in the Crown of Thorns and other relics for sale in Venice. For 135 000 pounds, the crown of the thorns is brought to France, arriving in Paris in 1239.

The day after the arrival of the crown in Paris, a great ceremony is organized, during which the relic is placed in the chapel of Saint-Nicolas de la Cité. Three years later, two new artefacts sold by the emperor arrive in Paris: Relics of the Passion of Christ and a part of the True Cross (on which Jesus was crucified). These were considered to be direct proof of the story of Jesus and his crucifixion. These three relics, now owned by the king, are particularly important to Christians. Louis IX decides to place these precious items in a more prestigious location than the little Saint-Nicolas Chapel. Thus, the king calls for the construction of a new chapel within the old Palais Royal de l’Ile de la Cité, specially designed to house these sacred items.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit

While the name of the original architect of the Sainte-Chapelle de Paris remains unconfirmed to this day, some texts have mentioned the name Pierre de Montreuil. At the start of the project in 1240, the architect of the Sainte-Chapelle must already have been a man of a certain age, who possessed quite a bit of favour with the king. Thus in 1242, construction work begins. The project is completed just six years later in 1248, an impressive accomplishment considering the complex gothic architecture of the chapel. It is a architectural masterpiece combining fine workmanship and precision.

Lower chapel and upper chapel

Entirely dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the lower chapel of the Sainte-Chapelle was once reserved for members of court. The lower chapel is notable for the lack of lighting, lending it an almost mystical quality. The lack of light is due to its unusually small windows and lower ceilings.

Located above the lower chapel, the upper chapel is dedicated to the relics of the Crucifixion and is directly connected to the first floor of the Palais Royal by a small door. Thus, access to the upper chapel was, at the time, exclusively reserved for members of the royal family. A massive rosette dominates the entryway and bathes the chapel’s floors, walls and sculptures in light. The atmosphere, the lofty architecture, the massive stained glass windows and warmly coloured light of this room are in stark contrast to the darkness of the lower chapel.

A symbol of royalty gone wrong

A true symbol of the monarchy, the Sainte-Chapelle was one of the first targets of French Revolutionaries in 1789. While two-thirds of its stained glass windows are original, different restorations throughout the chapel’s history have removed some of its panels. Similarly, among the twelve statues of the apostles located at the base of the ogive arches, only those that adorn the stage in front of the apse are genuine. The other statues are replicas of the originals, which were badly damaged during the French Revolution and are now stored at the Cluny Museum.

The furniture, stalls, the rood screen and all the regalia were also destroyed during the Revolution. At this time, reliquaries and boxes were sent to the mint to be melted down. Only the Crown of Thorns was saved from the destruction. In order to accommodate shelving, 2 metres of stained glass was removed from the upper chapel and it was temporarily converted into archival storage. The removed stained glass windows were, for the most part sold to England.

Between 1840 and 1868, the chapel finally underwent works to restore it to its authentic original appearance and preserve its historical value for future generations.

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