Sainte-Chapelle contains some of the oldest and extensive pieces of stained glass in the World. It was originally built to house Louis IX’s collection of religious relics, including the Crown of Thorns, and the ecclesiastical building can be found on Île de la Cité; the little island in the middle of the Seine where Notre Dame is also located.
History of Sainte-Chapelle
‘Sainte Chapelle’ translates roughly as ‘Holy Chapel’. And by ‘translates roughly’ I mean that this is literally the closest approximation. I hate the term ‘direct translation’. Every language has its own nuances and so it is impossible to translate directly from one language to another. Okay, rant over. 😉
It was started sometime around 1242 and was finally consecrated (made holy) upon its completion in 1248. This is where the crown of thorns (now in Notre Dame) was originally housed. The crown of thorns is the most expensive Christian relic in history and can be found at the back of nearby Notre Dame Cathedral.
Its silhouette is visible from underneath the red cloth that constantly covers it apart from the first Friday of every month when it is possible to view and kiss the relic. The image of Edessa was also originally housed here; it is a cloth on which the face of Jesus had been imprinted.
Unfortunately, the building was damaged during the French revolution; whilst nearly two-thirds of the windows are genuine, lots of the chapel that can be seen today is the result of 19th Century reparations and restorations.
It was also during the French revolution that the original organ was moved from the chapel, all the furniture lost and many of the relics dispersed, never to be seen again. The windows have been temporarily removed twice during the chapel’s history; once during the 19th century and again during the Second World war.
What it’s really like to visit Sainte-Chapelle
I absolutely queued for over an hour in order to see the Chapel, and it was worth every single minute. I guess the golden gates at the chapel’s entrance were a sign of things to come… As I’m under 26, I was able to enter the Chapel for free. However, as with almost everything in France, I had to queue to actually get my free ticket!
When I finally acquired my ticket and entered the chapel, I was greeted with an incredible night sky ceiling. There are actually two parts to Sainte-Chapelle; the lower and upper chapel. The one you enter the first is the smaller of the two; the lower chapel.
Once inside, there is a chance to purchase an audio guide and visit the quaint little gift shop. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the lower chapel was originally intended to be used solely by the King’s staff (still pretty grand though).
The larger chapel of Sainte-Chapelle
After spending some time admiring this chapel, you then ascend a spiral staircase to see the main (and equally – if not more- beautiful) upper chapel. I don’t think I have ever seen as many spiral staircases as I’ve seen since moving to France!
When you finally reach the top of the staircase, it is hard not to be impressed by the 600 square metres of stained glass paneling that greets you. It also helps that the ceiling is over 40 metres high. The room is particularly spectacular when the sun outside isn’t shining too brightly as it enables you to really see the detail in the glass depictions.
The stained glass depicts various biblical scenes from both the new and old testaments; they are arranged in chronological order rotating clockwise. In the last 30 years, all of the windows have been thoroughly cleaned and restored; removing centuries worth of dirt and grime.
Details & highlights of Sainte-Chapelle
The detail in every single aspect of the chapel is absolutely breathtaking and must have taken a painstaking amount of hours to create. Both the lower and upper chapels are plastered with gold gilding. In order to create this effect during the medieval period, fine sheets of gold leaf were applied onto the surface using gesso (a mix of finely coated chalk and glue).
How is the Sainte-Chapelle stained glass made?
Almost everything that we know about the making of stained glass during the medieval period comes from a German monk and glassmaker named Theophilus. According to him, in order to make glass, a mixture of wood ash and sand would be heated to a high temperature.
In early stained glass window years, uncoloured glass was generally green or blue due to iron oxides present in the making. The stained glass in the chapel is made using colours derived from elements; powdered metals were added during the making.
Every stained glass window in existence has an original paper template. A drawing is created on a design board and various pieces of stained glass are laid over this in order to create the image. Each piece is fitted with h shaped lead strips. Putty is placed between the lead and glass for waterproofing purposes. The lead frames are then soldered together before the entire creation is placed in an iron frame.
How to visit Sainte-Chapelle
If you’re looking to visit the magnificent example of medieval architecture for yourself, then be sure to visit in the early morning, when the chapel first opens. This way, you’ll have to queue for the least possible time as the crowds do tend to pile up later on in the day.
If you want to surpass the queues entirely and don’t have time to wait around, then I recommend booking in advance and purchasing a skip-the-line ticket in order to partake in a self-guided tour of the chapel. In total, a visit takes around an hour.
Whatever you choose to do, when visiting, do make sure you end up in the right queue! The queue on the right-hand side is for Sainte-Chapelle whilst the queue on the left is for the law courts. Please bear in mind that the chapel is closed for lunch; this is a full Parisian lunch hour- 1-2:15 pm.