La Sainte Chapelle: heaven on earth

The story goes that in 988, the ambassadors of Prince Vladimir of Kiev to Constantinople told their Prince that when witnessing worship in Hagia Sophia, they knew not whether they were on heaven or on earth. If they had waited until the mid-thirteenth century and visited Paris instead, I think perhaps the Kievan Rus could have become Roman Catholic rather than Eastern Orthodox.

I say this as one who has participated in a modern re-creation of mediaeval liturgy (reflections on that here), and I imagine that when such a liturgy was celebrated in La Sainte Chapelle in Paris, the lines between nature and supernature, earth and heaven, would blur amidst the dazzling walls made of glass, the gold, the incense, and the Gregorian Chant. The setting, of course, essential.

La Sainte Chapelle is located within the precincts of the old royal Palais de la Cité, situated on Ile-de-la-Cite, the large island in the middle of the Seine whereon you find Notre-Dame de Paris, herself a most remarkable woman almost 100 years older than Ste-Chapelle. Today, this palace has been modified and expanded around Ste-Chapelle as the Palais de Justice. But you can still visit the Radiant Gothic (rayonnant) holy chapel, no longer used for liturgical celebrations.

Ste-Chapelle was built by King St Louis IX (r. 1226-1270) between 1241 and 1248. Conceptually, it is inspired by the fantastic Romanesque palatine chapel of Charlemagne at Aachen (792-805). However, stylistically, it is a Gothic reliquary chapel, built in two storeys; the upper chapel was dedicated to the Holy Cross, the lower to the Virgin. Within the various subdivisions of Gothic architecture, Ste-Chapelle is a fine example of a Radiant Gothic church, whose rose windows have the style of rays spreading out from the centre (hence rayonnant).

Rose window of La Sainte Chapelle
Rose window of La Sainte Chapelle

Apparently, some people find the 19th-century attempts to classify Gothic architecture by its window tracings a bit misguided; one can certainly see stirrings of flamboyant in the window above.

The walls are almost entirely windows. Or, at least, they look it.

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There is more stone than it appears, including exterior buttresses. There is also a large quantity of metalwork holding the fabric of Ste-Chapelle together, much of it invisible because it is worked into the images of the windows themselves. Gothic architecture, as I have discussed before, seeks to maximise light in part because of the (Pseudo-)Dionyisian ideal of God as the Uncreated Light. In Ste-Chapelle, the amount of blue, red, and purple used to execute the various biblical and historical scenes portrayed in the windows gives an overarching sense of majesty and glory.

And why not? As I said above, Ste-Chapelle was built as a reliquary chapel. For which relics, you may ask? The Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross, acquired by St Louis as both an act of piety and of polity. You can see the top of the reliquary itself in the above photo, bathed in light from the apsidal windows.

Ste-Chapelle is one of the most remarkable architectural spaces I’ve eve visited. Because the north side is, I believe, flanked by a building (currently the windows are undergoing restoration), it is not as bright as I’d hoped. But it is still beautiful and noteworthy, a large, magnificent interior space drawing the eye upward and the soul outward to the Triune God.

Here are some more photos.

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King St Louis IX in apse of Lower Chapel
Me enjoying the Upper Chapel
Me enjoying the Upper Chapel

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