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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris

What is the Sainte-Chapelle?

The Sainte-Chapelle is a Medieval Gothic chapel built by the pious King Louis IX and dedicated in 1248. It is built within the Palais de la Cité in Paris.


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A Walk Through Sainte-Chapelle History

As you admire the exterior of the famous Sainte-Chapelle, be humbled to be standing within the courtyard of the Palais de la Cité, or Royal Palace, the residence of the Kings of France up until the 14th century. The royal chapel, commissioned by King Louis IX to house his collection of Passion of Christ relics, which included a relic of the Crown of Thorns, said to have once rested upon the head of Jesus.

Such an important relic deserved to be safeguarded and showcased to perfection, and the beautiful interior of the chapel certainly achieved that aim: the structure was once considered to be the most important religious building in the world. Besides becoming the repository for King Louis’ Passion Collection, the chapel also served as a place of worship for the royal household. It was therefore of great importance that the chapel was sufficiently impressive, so as to reflect the political aspirations and stature of the French monarch.

As you step inside this marvel of medieval architecture, your first impression will surely be a sense of awe. The church is a wonderful example of Gothic design of the Rayonnant era, a mid-13th century period which saw a subtle move away from overt High Gothic design towards refinement and light, achieved mainly by the use of large windows and narrow supporting stonework. What makes the church particularly unique is the impression of weightlessness, achieved by the very slender vertical masonry columns, separated by large expanses of stained-glass windows. The concrete columns draw your eye up to the heavens, while each and every magnificent stained-glass window tells a story from the New or Old Testament (particularly important in the 13th century when most people were illiterate). In addition to the beauty of the windows, all the concrete parts of the church were richly decorated in red, gold and blue paint.

Sainte-Chapelle interior

When the chapel was constructed in the 13th century, religious relics were often stored in ornate containers called reliquaries; since this amazing church was built specifically to house King Louis’ collection of Passion Relics, one could draw the conclusion that the exquisite chapel was itself, in fact, a grand reliquary for the prized possessions.

The chapel was largely reconstructed in the 19th and 21st centuries. It was badly damaged during the French Revolution, but fortunately at least two thirds of the spectacular original windows survived unscathed. The windows were covered with a layer of varnish to help protect them during the Second World War, however the varnish subsequently darkened and needed to be removed in restoration work that commenced in 2008 and took seven years to complete. The precious Crown of Thorns relic was in fact moved to Notre Dame Cathedral in 1806, so that it could be worshipped by all. It was famously rescued from the disastrous 2019 Notre Dame fire by Father Jean-Marc Fournier.

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