Sunday, November 22, 2020


As I was hurrying back to the railway station at the end of my extremely brief day-trip to Paris, I noticed the very visible lack of visitors waiting to enter Sainte-Chapelle. Where there would typically be a long queue, snaking down the street, there was nothing. But nothing is typical for the time being and this was indeed the last free day before lockdown. The usual throngs of tourists were largely absent.
This being too good an opportunity to miss, I quickly entered, racing up the ancient, worn steps for fear of missing the last daylight and my train back home! The beautiful stained-glass windows towered above, still jewel-like bright, despite the grey, rather menacing skies outside. Inside the gold arcades and richly-decorated columns glowed against the regal blue. Also visible on the photos are the pale, ghostly apparitions of the visitors' facemarks...
Sainte-Chapelle and the nearby Conciergerie - where Marie-Antoinette was held prisoner until her execution in 1793 - are the last visible vestiges of the oldest palace of the kings of France. They were once part of the Palais de la Cité, the residence and seat of power between the 10th and 14th century, but now form the Palais de Justice.
The first Capetian king, Hugues Capet had set up the royal government and council in this palace at the end of the 10th century. By the time the first foundation stones were being laid for Sainte-Chapelle, the cathedral of Notre-Dame was already much as we know it today.
Built around 1242, the Sainte-Chapelle held the holy relics of the Passion of Christ - the most valued of these being the Crown of Thorns. The relics enabled Louis IX to elevate Paris as it became known as a New Jerusalem, second capital of Christianity.
The edifice is composed of two structures; the upper and lower chapel. The holy relics were displayed in the upper sanctuary, reserved for the royal family and friends while the place of worship below was destined for staff.
Throughout the chapel, the regal fleur-de-lys blooms, recalling the political as well as the religious importance of the site.
A semi-circular apse is at the head of the basilica form, opposite the rose window at the other end of the chapel and the fifteen stained-glass windows that flank the space enable light to flow in, a myriad of colour.
Although the royal family would have had a privileged existence, you cannot help but wonder if they too were astounded by the sheer wealth of beauty before their eyes.
The mesmerizing shock of light and colour from the chapel is made all the more powerful today, as then, by the contrast with its stark exterior, where dark gargoyles peer down from jagged architectural forms that cast a strict outline against the city skies.
Yet these seem to offer a strange sense of timeless resilience; these wonders have survived the centuries, the passage of all that time, and faced all nature of adversity. It felt quite fitting to be there, on the eve of lockdown...

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