Sainte-Chapelle: Notre Dame’s Luminous Gothic Stepsister

Posted in Europe

Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris sits proudly guarding the Seine River and hosts millions of tourists each year. It is an historic and beautiful cathedral. As impressive as it is, I feel overwhelmed by its immensity rather than captivated by its beauty.  My favorite Paris church, Sainte-Chappelle, is located nearby on the same island in the Seine. Sainte-Chapelle is much smaller and receives far fewer visitors than Notre-Dame and, in contrast to its larger sibling, offers a wonderfully intimate and enchanting experience.

The king and the commoners

Gothic spires of Sainte-Chapelle

In 1239, the French King Louis IX purchased the Crown of Thorns that was said to have been worn by Jesus during the crucifixion and the king needed an appropriate place of worship to house that valuable relic. He built Sainte-Chappelle inside the Conciergerie, his royal compound on the island. Completed in only six years, the church consists of two sanctuaries, one on top of the other. Only the king and royal family were allowed to worship in the upper chapel. Servants and commoners worshiped in the lower chapel.

A symphony of color

Sainte-Chapelle stained glass scenes

In the upper chapel, a rainbow of sunlight streaming through fifteen stained glass windows pierces the dark interior and creates a stunning visual symphony. Walls of stained glass completely surround the sanctuary providing a pictorial representation of more than 1,000 scenes from the Bible. While the images are beautiful, they also served a practical purpose. Books were extremely rare in the thirteenth century and few people knew how to read so the Bible stories were illustrated through the pictorial representations in the mosaics, frescos, and stained glass of the churches. Chairs are set up that allow visitors to sit and admire the scenes. I am always struck with wonderment when I sit in the chapel and admire the artistry. How did those artists create such beauty working with crude medieval tools? 

By contrast, the lower chapel is much less ornate. It is adorned with wall paintings but the light, color and airiness of the upper chapel are missing. The commoners and servants were relegated to a drab, dark chamber for their worship.

A visit to Paris can be exhausting. There are so many sights and museums to visit that many visitors wear themselves out going from one sight to the next. To really enjoy the city, visitors should pace themselves and occasionally take the time to simply relax in a beautiful setting and recharge. Sainte-Chapelle is my favorite place to unwind and refresh.