Last Updated on 1st October 2019 by Sophie Nadeau
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.
Editor’s tip: If you’re looking to visit Sainte Chapelle in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, then you’ll want to purchase a timed entry ticket in advance. This way, you can beat the crowds and maximise your time exploring the French capital! Purchase your self-guided tour and skip-the-line ticket to Sainte Chapelle here.
A history of Sainte-Chapelle
‘Sainte Chapelle’ translates from French into English roughly as ‘Holy Chapel’. Construction of the building began sometime around 1242 (though exact dates are uncertain). The ecclesiastical building was finally consecrated (made holy) upon its completion in 1248.
The Sainte Chapelle you see today was one of a handful of the order of Sainte Chapelle churches that were dotted around France. Today, just a few remain, notably that of Vincennes and that in Châteaudun, on the edge of the Loire Valley. Many visitors don’t know this, but the Sainte Chapelle of Île de la Cité was originally constructed to house the Crown of Thorns, as well as Louis IX’s other ‘Passion Relics’.
The Crown of Thorns is the most expensive Christian relic in history and before the fire at Notre Dame, could be found at the back of nearby Notre Dame Cathedral. Its silhouette was visible from underneath the red cloth that constantly covers it apart from the first Friday of every month when it was 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 has allegedly been imprinted.
Unfortunately, the building of Sainte Chapelle was badly 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 personally queued for over an hour in order to see the Chapel since I had made the mistake of not purchasing a skip-the-line ticket in advance. If you are under 26 and a resident of the European Union, then you can visit Sainte Chapelle for free, though you’ll have to wait in line to actually get a ticket in order to enter!
When I finally acquired my ticket and entered the chapel, I was greeted with an incredible night sky ceiling, the first of several beautiful architectural features you’ll love to see. What many visitors don’t realise is that there are actually two parts to Sainte-Chapelle; the lower chapel and the upper chapel. The one you enter the first is the smaller of the two; the lower chapel, which is now used as a Paris parish church.
Once inside, there is a chance to purchase an audio guide (the audioguide is incredibly comprehensive and delves deeper into the history of Sainte Chapelle) 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. With this being said, the Place of Worship is still incredibly grand and features stained glass and vaulted ceilings.
The larger chapel of Sainte-Chapelle
After spending some time admiring this chapel, you’ll then ascend a spiral staircase to see the main (and equally – if not more- beautiful) upper chapel of Sainte Chapelle. When you finally reach the top of the staircase, it is hard not to be impressed by the 600 square metres of stained glass panelling that greets you.
It also helps that the ceiling is over 40 metres high, adding grandeur to the King’s former Chapel and once home to the Crown of Thorns. The room is particularly spectacular when the sun outside isn’t shining too brightly as this enables you to really see the detail in the glass depictions (and snap better pictures of the Île de la Cité attraction).
The stained glass depicts various biblical scenes from both the new and old testaments; they are arranged in chronological order rotating clockwise. The stained glass also depicts the journey of the Passion Relics to Sainte Chapelle in Paris. In the last 30 years, all of the windows have been thoroughly cleaned and restored; removing centuries worth of dirt and grime and allowing visitors to once more fully appreciate the beauty of the Medieval stained glass.
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).
Rose window: Stained glass enthusiasts will be particularly delighted to discover that the true masterpiece of Sainte-Chapelle is the expansive Rose window of the upper chapel. The Gothic glass features St John’s Book of Revelation.
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 Parisian 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. All in all, the Parisian church sees around 900,000 visitors on an annual basis. Tripods are not allowed inside (as is the case with most major Parisian monuments).
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. Please bear in mind that the chapel is closed for lunch; this is a full Parisian lunch hour- 1-2:15 pm.
If you wish to see the nearby Conciergerie (i.e. where Marie Antoinette was held prisoner prior to her execution), then be sure to buy this Sainte-Chapelle & Conciergerie Combined Skip-the-Queue Ticket. 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.
The final Sainte-Chapelle travel tips I would give to you would be to be sure to set aside enough time to fully enjoy the chapel (a full-hour should be sufficient if you’ve purchased the skip-the-line ticket) and make sure to set aside enough time to explore the surrounding area. Check out my free and self-guided Ile de la Cite tour for more highlights of the 1st arrondissement of Paris.
Does Sainte Chapelle have Mass?
For those who wish to attend a service at Sainte Chapelle, it’s worth noting that no regular mass services are held. If you wish to attend a Parisian service, then all of these Paris churches hold regular Roman Catholic masses. I particularly recommend Saint Etienne du Mont and Eglise Saint Severin for their unique architectural features.
The acoustics of Sainte Chapelle are simply amazing and attending an event here is something you’ll remember for decades to come. Sainte Chapelle concerts take place throughout the year, though more commonly during the summer months than in the winter. As such, check before your Paris visit whether there’ll be a concert so as to add an extra special touch to your time in the French capital city.