Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, 1248. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’ve walked into the courtyard of what had once been the palace of the king of France, and in the center is a jewel box, “Sainte-Chapelle.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:13] This was the royal chapel. This was a chapel attached to the royal palace for the use of the king and his household, but it’s much more than that.

Dr. Zucker: [0:23] We walked in through the lower chapel, which was used by the king’s household, into the upper chapel, which was used by the king, by the queen, and by the court.

Dr. Harris: [0:31] In fact, there are niches on either side for the king and queen. At the far end was a reliquary, and this was the whole point of Sainte-Chapelle.

Dr. Zucker: [0:42] The king, Saint Louis, had obtained one of the great relics of Christendom, the Crown of Thorns. This was part of the Passion of Christ.

Dr. Harris: [0:50] And of course, a crown is symbolic of royalty and this was the chapel of Saint Louis, also known as King Louis IX.

Dr. Zucker: [0:58] Saint Louis was able to purchase the crown from his cousin, who was the Byzantine emperor.

Dr. Harris: [1:03] For an enormous sum.

Dr. Zucker: [1:05] I think it’s important to just step back and think about what that crown signified. The faithful believed that the crown had touched Christ, had made him bleed, and the idea of the relic is central. It collapses time, it brings Christ into our immediate experience.

Dr. Harris: [1:20] Now, relics were incredibly important in medieval culture. They performed miracles.

Dr. Zucker: [1:26] Extremely ornate boxes were produced in order to house them. In some ways, one can imagine that this entire chapel functions metaphorically as a reliquary for the Crown of Thorns.

Dr. Harris: [1:38] It’s said that more than three-quarters of this building is made of glass. There’s light flooding in. It’s a light that is golden and red and blue and purple.

Dr. Zucker: [1:50] This is a crowning achievement of Gothic architecture. The lancet windows soar upward, pointing our eyes towards heaven.

Dr. Harris: [1:56] Typically, we see four-part ribbed groin vaults.

Dr. Zucker: [2:00] And bundled colonnettes that make the masonry feel more delicate. In fact, the masonry has been reduced to almost nothing, really just mullions — that is, slender, vertical forms that separate the windows.

Dr. Harris: [2:12] We’re here in the 13th century, beyond the High Gothic, a period that art historians called the rayonnant, where we have this emphasis on thin line and the total opening up of the walls to windows, which was always a goal of Gothic architecture, but here taken to such an extreme.

[2:31] Over the west door, we see this enormous rose window. Rose windows were a typical feature of Gothic architecture. During this rayonnant period, the stone tracery that make up the stained-glass window becomes thinner, and more attenuated, and more complex.

Dr. Zucker: [2:47] The windows are not just beautiful. They tell stories. Each window refers to either an Old or New Testament story or a story referring to the acquisition of the relic. We see a window representing the moment when Christ has the crown of thorns placed on his head, the crown that, by tradition, was held in this church.

Dr. Harris: [3:06] This is dense with imagery. In addition to the stained-glass windows, we have sculptures of the apostles that stand between the windows. We have quatrefoils that depict scenes of martyrdom. There are also angels in the spandrels, many of whom hold crowns. Some swing censers.

Dr. Zucker: [3:23] A reminder of what the space would have been like when it was still used as a church. Imagine this space filled with music, filled with the voice of the priest, filled with the smoke of the incense, with colored light streaming through. It is this beautiful, mystical space.

Dr. Harris: [3:40] In addition to there being so much imagery, so much of the surfaces are painted. There are reds, and golds, and blues. There’s almost nothing that would remind us that this is a building made of stone.

Dr. Zucker: [3:53] This completely open interior space, with so much glass, seems absolutely miraculous. It is a testament to the sophistication of Gothic architects during this late period. There seems like there’s not nearly enough stone to hold this building up. Let’s go outside and take a look at how this was achieved.

[4:12] We’ve walked out of the chapel. What strikes me is that the building stands alone. It’s tall and it’s thin. But here we are in the middle of the Île de la Cité, a small island in the middle of modern Paris.

Dr. Harris: [4:27] In the 13th century, at the very time that Sainte-Chapelle is built, Paris was becoming the capital that we know it as today.

Dr. Zucker: [4:34] We can see how the building’s structure works from the outside. The actual responsibility for bearing the great weight of the stone vaulting is carried by the buttresses, which we can see on the exterior. All of that weight was brought outside.

[4:49] The buttresses are kept fairly small in order to ensure that light can enter in the windows, which creates another problem. The lateral force of the roof is pushing outward. These buttresses on their own wouldn’t be enough to support the roof.

Dr. Harris: [5:02] There was an additional structural element that was added to help ensure the stability of the building. There are iron rods that act like a girdle to counter the thrust of the vaulting down and out.

Dr. Zucker: [5:15] Some art historians have pointed out that the exterior top of the building looks rather like a crown.

Dr. Harris: [5:20] If we look up toward the top of Sainte-Chapelle, we see gables, and in between the gables, those buttresses. The buttresses have on top of them these tall pinnacles. We almost read that alternation of gables and pinnacles as the points on a crown.

Dr. Zucker: [5:36] In fact, the phrase Sainte-Chapelle is a specific type of chapel, that is a chapel within the palace grounds and that holds a relic.

[5:43] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Sainte-Chapelle, Paris," in Smarthistory, May 24, 2017, accessed May 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/sainte-chapelle-paris/.