If you want to see one of the finest monuments in Paris, head to the the royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle on the Île de la Cité.
The 13th century royal chapel is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture and stained glass. It’s impossible to overstate how beautiful it is.
Sainte-Chapelle is a super-shrine of glass like no other, where the glory of the Gothic style shines bright. This place is a weightless dream of pure color, originally designed as a reliquary to hold holy relics.
Everywhere you look, glittering stained glass filters daylight and reaches up to an elegantly ribbed ceiling. A visit is akin to standing in a crystal or glass cage.
What Is Gothic Architecture?
Gothic architecture is one of my favorite historical styles. The Gothic style was wildly popular for almost four centuries during the Middle Ages and has had Neo-Gothic revivals in the 18th century and mid 19th centuries.
What makes a building Gothic?
A Gothic building will have five elements: highly ornate decoration, stained glass windows, pointed arches, flying buttresses, and ribbed vaulting. There is an emphasis on lightness and verticality.
Sainte-Chapelle is an example of Rayonnant Gothic, a period that came between the High Gothic and the Flamboyant Gothic. Rayonnant means “to radiate” and the refined style focused on lightness and lacy facades.
Sainte-Chapelle represents the apogee of the Rayonnant style. The walls of the chapel almost disappear, replaced with intensely colored stained glass and delicate ribbing.
History Of Sainte-Chapelle
What is the backstory of Sainte-Chapelle?
In 1239, King Louis IX purchased 22 “holy relics” of the Passion of Christ from the emperor of Constantinople (who was broke and needed the cash). The most important one was the Crown of Thorns, which Jesus wore when he was crucified.
The French king spent an astronomical sum, more than half of his personal fortune, on these relics. Though he was a religious man, the purchase was also a political move.
Louis’ ascension to the throne was initially contested. Having the most prized religious relics in existence helped him solidify his authority.
The relics also endowed France with symbolic prestige in the medieval world, effectively making it the new Holy Land.
And Louis IX wasn’t even done spending. Having procured the prize relics, he needed to build a worthy reliquary to house them. Historians believe that he hired Pierre de Montreuil, the architect of the Basilica of Saint-Denis.
Between 1242 and 1248, Louis built the magnificent Sainte-Chapelle in record time. In comparison, the chapel cost about one third of what he doled out for the relics.
The chapel is divided into two sanctuaries: a lower chapel (for palace staff) and an upper chapel (for the royal family and dignitaries).
From the beginning, the holy relics were displayed and worshiped in the monumental and sumptuously decorated upper chapel, set amid 8,000 square feet of stained glass.
Unfortunately, as a true symbol of the monarchy, the French Revolution wasn’t kind to Sainte-Chapelle.
About one third of its stained glass was destroyed. The spire, furniture, stalls, rood screen, and all the regalia were also torn down or dismantled.
The 12 life size apostles were ripped from their plinths and unceremoniously buried. Four of them were decapitated, thus earning them the moniker of the “unlucky apostles.”
The silver trunk, known as the grande chasse, containing the relics was melted down and most were destroyed.
But the crown of thorns and piece of the holy cross were saved and transferred to the treasury of Notre Dame Cathedral. With the 2019 fire at a Notre Dame, they are now in the Louvre.
The precious stained glass was restored, off and on, over 40 years in time to mark the 800th birthday of King Louis IX in 2015.
The restoration process involved taking the windows apart and cleaning them with lasers. The windows were then fitted with a thin protective layer of glass to keep pollution at bay.
Guide To Sainte-Chapelle: What To See
When you enter the monument, you will need to observe silence. An attendant sits in a chair and her main job is to shush people.
There are a few places to sit down and admire the stained glass. But you should expect to spend most of your time standing.
The chapel can’t be seen from the street because it’s set within the Paris Courthouse. The exterior is not particularly special, except for a legion of gargoyles. It’s basically functional and currently undergoing renovation.
Muscular buttresses hold up a stone roof. The lacy spire (which has been replaced four times) is a Neo-Gothic confection added by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century.
Your visit starts in the lower chapel, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. A statue of the virgin greets you at the portal. There’s a small gift shop if you want a souvenir.
Inside, the chapel is rather dark and decorated in deep red and blue colors. Gilded buttresses support the vaults and it has a crypt-like feel.
The slender columns are painted with fleurs de lis on a blue background, and its sturdier ones have gold castles on a red background. The capitals feature golden acanthus leaves.
The polychrome decoration dates from the 19th century, when an attempt was made attempt to recreate the medieval decoration with the help of the greatest architects and artisans in France.
During the restoration, some damaged elements were removed and donated to the Cluny Museum, a history museum of the Middle Ages.
The lower chapel is notable for its lack of lighting, lending it an almost mystical quality. The dimness is due to the lower ceilings and small windows.
In the apse, is a copy of a stone statue of Louis IX.
You access the upper chapel by a spiral stairway to the immediate right after entering the lower chapel.
Sainte Chapelle owes its fame to the upper chapel’s magnificent stained glass windows. 1,113 bible scenes are depicted in 15 narrow windows, which are 50 feet tall. They tell the story of the Old and New Testmanent from the Creation in Genesis through Christ’s resurrection.
In the Middle Ages, stained glass was important. It served the purpose of educating the largely illiterate populace. The windows were essentially comic books from which people could “read” the Bible stories.
The glass is characterized by intense colors (blue, red, purple, green, and yellow) and dynamic lines, which are the hallmarks of the great 13th century painter-glassmakers in service of the king.
You are intended to read the windows from left to right and top to bottom. The only exception is the history of the relics, which is read right to left.
It’s the window on the immediate right as you enter and a bit of a propaganda piece. Louis IX is portrayed as the legitimate successor to the biblical kings, thereby immortalizing himself in the chapel.
The rest of the windows are organized as follows:
- Left side: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, The Book of Joshua
- Apse: Book of Judges, Book of Isaiah, St. John the Evangelist, Passion of Christ, St. John the Baptist, Book of Ezekiel, Book of Jeremiah and Tobias
- Right side: Books of Judith and Job, Book of Esther, Books of Kings, History of the holy relics
The stained glass scenes are in all different shapes — round, square, pointed ovals, and diamond quatrefoil. The overall effect is almost overwhelming.
Admittedly, it’s a bit hard to see the individual windows with the naked eye.
But this can be partly solved if you download a new app, the “Sainte-Chapelle Windows,” on your phone or tablet from Googleplay or Appstore. With the app, you can zoom in on each panel of the stained glass windows and find out their meanings.
Restored in 2016, the Rose Window at the west end of the chapel is markedly different from the tall narrow panes. It was made 200 years later in 1485 and represents Judgment Day. A tiny Christ is in the center of chaos and miracles.
The chapel’s roof is blue as in the lower chapel. But it has a pattern of stars, rather than fleur de lis. The canopy of the reliquary altar itself is painted in the same way.
Everything else in the chapel is painted, gilded, bejeweled, or enameled. Just below the glass, there are enamel paintings of martyrs in medallions. Even the floors are beautiful, with tiles depicting animals and other symbols.
The sculptures in Sainte-Chapelle are of the 12 apostles, the spiritual pillars of the church. They’re located on plinths at the base of the ogive arches.
Only 6 of them, those that adorn the stage, are original. The rest are replicas. You can identify St. Peter (an original) because he is holding the key to the kingdom of heaven.
The other originals were badly damaged during the French Revolution and are in the Cluny Museum. When the Cluny was recently closed for renovation, the statues were restored and are now on display in the museum alongside some fragments of stained glass from Sainte-Chapelle.
The reliquary altar is raised up high, all the better to display the Crown of Thorns. You can see the staircase inside. Access was limited to the priest and the king.
You won’t see any high profile images of Jesus. This chapel was all about Louis IX.
Guide To Sainte-Chapelle: Tips For Visiting
Address: 10 Bd du Palais
As an enduring testament to its greatness, there’s always a line outside Sainte-Chapelle even in winter. In fact, I just waited in one for over 40 minutes in December after forgetting to pre-purchase a ticket. If you don’t have a ticket, try to arrive a half hour before the chapel opens at 9:00 am.
Tickets are 11,50 € for adults. Under 18 is free, but you still need to make a time slot reservation.
Do not buy your tickets on Viator at the moment. There’s a sign posted inside stating that you will have to buy a new ticket in the cash line and seek a refund directly from Viator.
You also have free entry to Sainte-Chapelle with the Paris Museum Pass, which is a great value if you are an avid museum goer. You can also book a combined ticket for Sainte-Chapelle and La Conciergerie.
I would also spring for the audio guide. It’s really worth the extra 3 € as it explains all of the windows. You can also pick up a free pamphlet.
To enter Sainte-Chapelle, you must first go through airport-type security in the Palace of Justice. There are two lines for people with and without tickets.
Once you’re past the security check, walk across the courtyard and follow signs to Sainte-Chapelle and the ticket line. There are two sets of lines for people with and without tickets.
Sainte-Chappelle is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, open until 7:00 pm April through September.
Sainte-Chapelle hosts a public concert series in the evening from spring to autumn. In 2023, they will begin on March 11. Click here for details and to book a ticket.
Tickets aren’t cheap, starting at $40. But the chance to listen to music in the world’s most beautiful chapel is priceless.
Try to visit Sainte-Chapelle on a bright and sunny day. The light pouring in through the stained glass is magical. It’s also pretty around sunset. The windows are not lit from the outside, so you can only see them in daylight.
I’d allocate about 1-2 hours for the visit itself (not counting waiting in lines).
If you want to see the windows up close, download the app I mentioned above or bring a small pair of binoculars.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to Sainte-Chapelle. You may enjoy these other Paris travel guides and resources:
- 5 day itinerary for Paris
- 3 day itinerary for Paris
- 2 day itinerary for Paris
- Hidden gems in Paris
- Guide To Montmartre
- Guide To the Latin Quarter
- Guide to the Marais
- Best Museums in Paris
- Louvre Survival Tips
- Guide To the Musee d’Orsay
- Secret Day Trips from Paris
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