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Sainte-Chapelle

Upper Chapel, Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

ABOVE: Sainte Chapelle's upper chapel. INSET BELOW: Exterior view from the courtyard of the Palais de Justice.

If you think of stained glass as the medieval counterpart to a movie, one church--Sainte Chapelle in Paris--qualifies as the IMAX of the Middle Ages. Its 15 tall stained-glass windows portray 1,134 scenes and have a combined surface area of 618 square meters or 6,652 square feet--nearly twice the size of a typical IMAX screen.

Sainte Chapelle was built to house relics from Christ's Passion: among them, the Crown of Thorns, which Louis IV--later to become St. Louis--had bought from the emperor of Constantinople in 1239. The "Holy Chapel" took only six years to build and was consecrated in 1248, just three years after the towers of Notre Dame were completed a few blocks away.

Saint-Chapelle, ParisThe Gothic-style church has two levels: the lower chapel or chapelle basse was the parish church for the palace, while the upper chapel--the chapelle haute with its spectacular stained-glass windows--was reserved for the royal family and the holy relics.

Much of Sainte-Chapelle was damaged in the French Revolution, but most of the statues were saved and two-thirds of the original 13th Century windows survived.

The church was deconsecrated in 1803 and restored later in the 19th Century. Today, it looks much like it did nearly 800 years ago.


Lower Chapel

Sainte-Chapelle, apse in Lower Chapel (Chapelle Bas)

ABOVE: The apse in the Lower Chapel. BELOW: Ceiling with fleur-de-lis pattern, and decorated columns. (Click each small photo for a larger view.)

Saint-Chapelle Lower Chapel ceiling

Saint-Chapelle Lower Chapel decorated columns

When you enter Sainte-Chapelle, your first stop will be the chapelle basse, or lower chapel, which was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and used as a place of worship by members of the court.

Clusters of slender columns support the arches of the vaulted ceiling, which is only about 7 meters or 23 feet high.

The polychrome decorations date from Sainte-Chapelle's restoration in the 1800s, but they're based on medieval designs.

The deep blue ceiling with its fleur-de-lis patterns, and the painted columns with their gilded fleur-de-lis and Castilian castle motifs, show that Gothic architecture could be anything but cool and monochromatic.

(For more evidence of the medieval predilection for color, visit the cathedral in Regensburg, Germany, where you can still see traces of the original bright pigments on columns and other parts of the stone interior.)


Upper Chapel

Saint-Chapelle Upper Chapel stained glass

ABOVE: Side windows in the upper chapel. BELOW: The apse, stained-glass detail, and--at bottom right--the vaulted ceiling with gold stars on a blue background. (Click each small photo for a larger view.)

Chapelle Haute, Saint-Chapelle, Paris

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A spiral stone staircase leads to the chapelle haute, or upper chapel, where Louis IX worshipped with his family when he wasn't occupied with the Crusades.

Stained glass is the main attraction in the upper chapel. The official leaflet from the Centre des monuments nationeaux describes the chapel's ambience:

Saint-Chapelle, Upper Chapel ceiling"The ceiling sems to float above the stained-glass windows. The massive buttresses have all but disappeared, masked by clusters composed of nine delicate columns, so placed that the mass of each pillar is barely perceptible."

The ceiling is 20.5 meters or 67 feet high, but it seems even loftier because it's nearly twice the chapel's width of 17 meters or 34 feet.

To enjoy the full effect, sit in one of the chairs along the side of the chapel, where you can gaze upward without straining your neck.

You'll also notice statues of the Apostles in the niches (these were added in the 14th Century), but don't go looking for the Crown of Thorns or the Piece of the the True Cross that Louis IX bought for his collection of Christian trinkets. The relics were taken from Ste-Chapelle during the French Revolution. (Some are in Nôtre-Dame's treasury, while others are at the Bibliothèque Nationale.)


Visitor information

Paiais de Justice, Paris

ABOVE: Sainte-Chapelle's visitor entrance is on the Boulevard du Palais, to the left of the Palais de Justice (shown above).

Sainte-Chapelle is in the Palais de la Cité, the medieval royal-palace complex that is now mostly occupied by the Palais de Justice (see photo above).

Nearby is the Conciergerie, with the medieval prison where Marie-Antoinette and some 2,700 other victims were held and tried before being sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution. (A combined ticket is available for both monuments.)

You can easily tour Sainte-Chapelle, the Conciergerie, and the area around Nôtre-Dame Cathedral during a half-day visit to the Île de la Cité.

To reach Sainte-Chapelle, take Métro Line 4 to the Cité stop and walk a block up the Rue de Lutèce to the Palais de Justice. The entrance to Sainte-Chapelle is to the left of the Palais and its gilded iron gates.

Alternatively, you can take the RER to St-Michel - Nôtre Dame and walk away from the cathedral toward the Boulevard du Palais.

From the St-Michel Métro stop on the Left Bank, cross the Pont St-Michel to the island; from the Hôtel de Ville stop on the Right Bank, walk across the Pont au Change.

Sainte-Chapelle is almost exactly in the middle of the  Île de la Cité as you walk along the Boulevard de Palais from either direction.

Another transportation option is the Batobus, which stops on the Left Bank across from Nôtre-Dame.

Admission: Buy a ticket or show your Museum Pass, go through the metal detector, and head inside.

Grab a free English-language brochure that will guide you through the church. (Start with the lower chapel, then follow the spiral staircase to the upper chapel with its stained-glass windows.)

Concerts: Classical-music concerts take place frequently from mid-March into October. Search the producer's concert listings  or check the notices inside Sainte-Chapelle's entrance to see what's scheduled during your visit.


Web links

Sainte-Chapelle - Centre des Monuments Nationaux
The chapel's official Web site has an English-language history, visitor information, and more.

Sainte-Chapelle (Wikipedia)
This one-page article is a readable introduction to the chapel's history. Also see the article on Louis IX of France.

Top photo iStockphoto/Kenneth C. Zirkel.
1st inset photo iStockphoto/Pierrette Guertin.