La Sainte-Chapelle is all that’s left of the Capetian royal palace. It was commissioned by King Louis IX in the 13th century to house his collection of Passion Relics, including the Crown of Thorns. The few surviving relics can be seen at Notre Dame de Paris. Note the beautiful stained glass windows, some of which date back to the 13th century.
Consecrated in 1248 to house the collection of Passion Relics, the Sainte-Chapelle also served a political purpose: the artistic patronage of Louis IX helped to position him as the central monarch of the western Christendom. The chapel suffered grave damage during the French Revolution, but was restored by Viollet-le-Duc in 1855.
The chapel shows many of the typical characteristics of Rayonnant architecture and is recognised as one of the world’s finest examples of this style, although it is uncertain who designed the building.
While the interior of the chapel is dominated by the stained glass, every inch of the remaining wall surface and the vault was also richly polychromed and decorated. Analysis of the remaining paint fragments reveals that the original colours were much brighter than those favoured by the 19th-century restorers and would have been closer to the colours of the stained glass. Above the dado level, mounted on the clustered shafts that separate the great windows, are 12 larger than life-sized sculpted stone figures representing the 12 Apostles (six of these are replicas – the damaged originals are now in the Musée du Moyen Age). Each carries a disk marked with the consecration crosses which were traditionally carved on the pillars of a church at its consecration. Niches on the north and south sides of the chapel are the private oratories of Louis IX and of his mother.
Despite the damage brought by the ages, fifteen huge, mid-13th-century windows still remain at the chapel. Moreover, they still display a clear iconographical programme. The three windows of the eastern apse illustrate the New Testament, featuring scenes of The Passion (centre) with the Infancy of Christ (left) and the Life of John the Evangelist (right). By contrast, the windows of the nave depict Old Testament exemplars of ideal kingship/queenship (in an obvious nod to their royal patrons). The final window, occupying the westernmost bay of the south wall, brings this narrative of sacral kingship right up to date with a series of scenes showing the rediscovery of Christ’s relics, the miracles they performed and their relocation to Paris by the hands of King Louis himself.
Rayonnant is a period in the French Gothic architecture, popular between 1240 and 1350. Its most notable characteristics, aside from the strong vertical emphasis typical of Gothic architecture in general, include repetitive decorative motifs at different scales, large windows filled with impressive stained glass and glazed triforia.
The relics meant to reside in the Sainte-Chapelle included the Crown of Thorns, the Image of Edessa and around thirty other items. In 1246, pieces of the True Cross and the Holy Lance were obtained, along with other objects. The age-old collection was dispersed during the French Revolution, but the remaining relics can be viewed at the Notre Dame.
The original collection of Louis IX might have been priceless, but it was also quite pricey – the king bought the relics from Baldwin II, the Latin emperor at Constantinople, for 135,000 livres. By comparison, the chapel itself cost 40,000 livres to build and glaze. Then there was the reliquary – a large and elaborate silver chest, the Grand-Chasse, which cost the monarch another 100,000 livres. The relics arrived in Paris in August 1239, carried from Venice by two Dominican friars. For the final stage of their journey they were carried by the King himself, barefoot and dressed as a penitent (this scene is depicted in the Relics of the Passion window on the south side of the chapel). The king was later recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church.
Here I find out where the tapestries of the Unicorn are.