In the 14th century, a Parisian scholar remarked that on venturing into the sacred edifice of La Sainte-Chapelle, "one understandably believes oneself, as if rapt to heaven, to enter one of the best chambers of Paradise." While others have been a little more reserved in their praise, La Sainte-Chapelle is widely considered to be the jewel of Gothic rayonnante architecture.
Situated on the Ile de la Cité in the heart of Paris, it was constructed in the mid-13th century as a chapel for the Capetian royal palace, of which little remains today. Sainte-Chapelle is now surrounded by the Palais de Justice, which continued the regal function of hearing the pleadings of aristocracy from the royal lit de justice. The Conciergerie is the principal palatial vestige, ironically becoming a prison to hold those of noble blood before they faced the guillotine during the Revolution years. Marie-Antoinette was, of course, one of its most famous inmates.
This dark, sinister past, along with the austere buildings that obscure the chapel from view give no indication to the creation of luminosity that lies behind the imposing walls. Even when you enter the central area, the rather modest exterior of Sainte-Chapelle, with the sobriety of its façade belie the breath-taking splendour within. There are no flying buttresses or lavish sculpture to indicate what lies beyond, and the gargoyles that peer down give no hint to what is hiding below.
For above all, this royal chapel was conceived to be an exquisite jewellery box that had to be opened in order to reveal its treasures. This was a reliquary 'turned in on itself', created to house the Holy relics that acted as the jewels in the crown of Louis IX and underlined the sacred lineage of this future saint.
The worldly and spiritual might of Louis (1214-1270) were mirrored in the magnificence of the architecture and decoration of the chapel interior, and were again reflected and refracted through the very themes of that decor.
The basis of this was the play of a seemingly spiritual light on the terrestrial glass structure that led to the illumination of this jewelled structure and the elevation of the mortal to higher planes.
Textile hangings and furthermore huge sculptures of the twelve Apostles completed the visual impact of Sainte-Chapelle. Nevertheless, the stained-glass windows remained first and foremost key to the full symbolism of the chapel.
Whilst several of the window panels deal with scenes from the New Testament, notably in the eastern apse, others in the nave feature images of monarchs. The vital role of Louis IX is highlighted in other scenes which represent the king's determined retrieval of the Holy relics and their transfer to Sainte-Chapelle itself.
Many images are thought to have been inspired by the illuminated manuscript of the Bible of Toledo (the St Louis Bible). This was created for Louis IX, on the request of his mother, the Queen Consort of France, Blanche de Castile (1188-1252).
King and Christ are portrayed in narrative scenes in order to seal the sacral kinship. Again, there is a play of mirrors as the glory of Louis is reflected within and amplified through this glorious looking glass.
The whole conception of Sainte-Chapelle was part and parcel of a strategy that spanned most of Louis's life, and led to his death. On his coronation in Reims in 1226, the future role of Louis as 'Lieutenant of God on Earth' was acknowledged. As king of France - the 'eldest daughter of the Church' - it was Louis' divine duty to defend the Catholic faith.
He went on two Crusades to the Holy Lands, in 1248 and 1270, the second leading to his final demise. Through his religious endeavours, Louis sought to present himself as a latter-day descendant of Emperor Charlemagne, the 'Father of Europe'. With the Holy Roman Empire in chaos, Louis portrayed himself as an eligible candidate as central monarch of Western Christendom.
It was Louis' spiritual mission and his regal and political aspirations that led to his acquisition of several relics of inestimable worth. In fact, these did come at a very real price, for while others would simply pillage, the saintly Louis purchased his Passion relics from the Latin emperor at Constantinople, Beaudoin II, at huge cost. This took place in1239, after two years of negotiation, the Crown of Thorns being the most precious relic of all.
In the last stage of the transfer of the relics to Paris, it was Louis himself, symbolically dressed as a penitent, who carried them. From 1241, Louis further enlarged his collection by the addition of other Byzantium pieces which included fragments of the True Cross and the Holy Lance. A place of worship was required to unite this treasure temporarily kept in the Château of Vincennes and the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye. It was decided that a chapel would be built within the Palais de la Cité itself to house the relics, enabling the king to enter directly from the palace. The early plans were drawn up 1241, work commenced in 1246, and the consecration of La Sainte-Chapelle took place in 1248.
No expense was spared to create a monument worthy of the prestigious relics. The fact that the reliquary chapel cost 40,000 livres to build and the initial relics came at the price of 135,000 livres gives a clear indication of their importance. A further 100,000 had been spent on a vast silver chest - la Grand-Châsse - to store the relics.
Of this vast aesthetic and spiritual wealth, only the intrinsic structure of Sainte-Chapelle has survived the centuries largely intact. Louis himself was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church and was pronounced saint in Orvieto in 1297. During his reign, the three petals of the fleur-de-lys were said to represent Faith, Wisdom and Chivalry, but throughout the years of the French Revolution the symbol was seen to represent everything that The Terror sought to overthrow. The end of the 18th century led to the dismantling, dispersion or destruction of much of the chapel's precious contents and decor.
During the revolutionary years, the chapel was used as office for administrative purposes and for this reason it escaped the fate that its choir stalls, rood screen and spire met. Under Viollet-le-Duc, restoration work was completed on Sainte-Chapelle in 1855, notably with a new spire, and from 1862 is became a national historic monument. Today, the Sainte-Chapelle always seems to have a long queue of visitors which snakes along the street, rain or shine. The day I went, it was particularly cold and grey but the beauty shone through. Unfortunately, my camera was playing up, so many of the photos just do not do the chapel any justice whatsover. I intend to go back on a bright, sunny day. Roll on 2014 with a new list of New Year's Resolutions and above all, the intention to discover more marvels wherever I should find myself...
Until then, enjoy your Christmas!