Friday, June 27, 2008


If Saint-Denis is the foundation of the Gothic style, then the thirteenth-century chapel of Sainte-Chapelle is its apotheosis. To the extent that the Gothic style was about verticality and light, Sainte-Chapelle is its utmost expression, rising on narrow ribs of stone and with walls made almost entirely of glass. The following picture more or less fails to do it justice, but it's the best I could get on our recent visit:


The amazing thing about the chapel is that, while the stonework was damaged during the Revolution and the Grand Reliquary which held the Crown of Thorns and other relics was melted down, none of the thirteenth-century stained glass was broken. This rather boggles the mind, but the result is some spectacular glass still visible in the vertical windows. Here's a sample, from the lower chapel apse:


The chapel was built at the behest of King Louis IX (St. Louis), who purchased the Crown of Thorns and other relics from King Baudoin (Baldwin) of Constantinople during the Crusades. Famously, the relics cost more to buy than the chapel cost to build. But the presence of the relics in the heart of the French royal palace (the chapel was on the grounds of the Palais de la Cité) made Paris one of the major centers of Western Christendom.

The Palais de la Cité survives in part in the form of the Conciergerie, which I wrote about earlier; but for the most part the site is now occupied by the Palais de Justice. The upshot of this is that the Sainte-Chapelle now stands in the courtyard of what is effectively the supreme court of Paris. So getting in is a bit of a trial, so to speak, involving metal detectors and x-ray machines.

In the nineteenth century, Sainte-Chapelle was among the buildings restored by Viollet-le-Duc, who repaired much of the damaged stonework and renewed the polychromy of the interior. It is one of the few medieval churches that has a polychromed interior, although the extent to which this reflects the original appearance of the chapel is open to debate; certainly there was originally wall painting inside the chapel. But there is something a bit Pre-Raphaelite about the gilding and the fleurs-de-lis that are everywhere now. This photograph gives you a sense of it: it represents my efforts to photograph the only surviving thirteenth-century wall painting in the place, an Annunciation.


The flash does tend to heighten the effect of the colors, but still you get a sense of the color, which is rich almost to the point of garishness. On the other hand, the glass and some of the surviving pictorial quatrefoils on the walls are pretty brightly colored too, so Viollet-le-Duc may have been on to something. One of the areas where he restored the stonework most thoroughly was on the royal portal in the upper chapel, through which the king would enter the chapel (via a porch attached to the palace proper). The panels of stone depict stories from Genesis, including the Creation, the Fall, and the story of Noah's Ark. Though obviously nineteenth-century in style, they are charming. Here is a partial panel showing the building of the Ark:


This is all unpainted, as is all the exterior sculpture on the chapel. One of the things that strikes me as nineteenth-century about it is the use of a Romanesque round chapel in the background. In a thirteenth-century relief, I might expect the background architecture to be that of the time and place where the relief was made: in this case, High Gothic. But Viollet-le-Duc was well read in archaeology and art history, and knew that some of the earliest Christian churches were built in a Roman style (of course here I feel compelled to point out that Noah was not a Christian, but V-le-D probably wasn't thinking the same way). In this he gives himself away with a kind of historical consciousness that was not characteristic of the period he was emulating.

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