3 Cool Things You Might Not Know About Sainte Chapelle (1241/3—1248 C.E.)

Interior, Sainte Chapelle. 1241/3-1248. Paris, France.

Today we’re featuring a travel request from Menno, who’s headed to the City of Lights this summer. Paris doesn’t lack for outstanding museums, from the predictable and palatial Musée du Louvre to lesser-known gems like Musée Maillol, but we’re taking you outside the walls of art repositories to a building that is itself a masterpiece.  Sainte Chapelle, located on the Île de la Cité just minutes from Notre-Dame, is a 13th century Gothic chapel whose claim to fame is a series of stunning stained glass windows.

1. Shopping Spree: Sainte Chapelle is a large-scale reliquary. It was commissioned by King Louis IX to house a series of important relics from Christ’s Passion that he purchased from Constantinople. The first relic Louis brought to France was part of the crown of thorns, but he later acquired many more, including a piece of the cross. To give you an idea of how much Louis spent, construction for Sainte Chapelle totaled 40,000 livres (a former currency of France), but the fragment of the crown of thorns alone cost the king 135,000 livres.

2. Sainte Chapelle is regarded as the purest example of the Rayonnant stage in French Gothic architecture. “Rayonnant” derives from the French “to radiate,” and refers to the radiating window tracery, whose stone divisions between glass window sections became progressively thinner. The influence of Sainte Chapelle is seen in Gothic architecture outside of France, including in Westminster Abbey and the Cologne Cathedral, which are both seen as masterpieces in their own right.  However, Sainte Chapelle was not influential in Italy, where light pouring in through so many stained glass windows would have scorched worshippers in a Mediterranean climate.

3. The windows of Sainte Chapelle’s upper chapel seem to create a glass cage to incredible effect, towering 50 feet high and covering 6,652 square feet. Almost all of the structural support is built into the exterior, leaving an illusion of weightlessness inside. The arms of Louis IX, the fleur-de-lys, and the castles of Castille (for his mother Blanche) popularly appear in the border patterns, but the main action of the windows centers on the relics held inside Sainte Chapelle, from the Passion to their arrival in Paris.  Moreover, Old Testament scenes of David and Solomon sought to link the king of France to these esteemed Biblical kings.

Citation and Image Source:

Benton, Janetta Rebold. Art of the Middle Ages. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002.