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No.5: The Sainte-Chapelle

issue 34 Dec / Jan 2006/7

Writer Jill Entwistle and Craig Gamble, Theatre Development Manager of the Melbourne Theatre Company, have chosen a Parisian gothic masterpiece.

The Sainte-Chapelle (French for Holy Chapel) is located within the Palais de Justice complex on the Ile de la Cité in Paris. It is known as an example of the rayonnante period of Gothic architecture with building beginning in 1246 and consecration in 1248. It was constructed by Louis IX as a chapel for the royal palace and cost 40,000 livres to build. Sainte-Chapelle was designed to house his recent purchase of relics of the Passion from the Byzantine emperor Baldwin II, themselves costing 135,000 livres. It revealed the extent of Louis IX’ ambition: ‘building Sainte Chapelle was not only an act of faith; it was also a political deed’.
The architect is thought to be Pierre de Montreuil, who also completed the south façade of Notre-Dame Cathedral and consists of an upper chapel famous for its inspiring blend of light, colour and space and a less ornate lower chapel which originally served as a parish church, each with a single nave.
The overall structure is 36m long, 17m wide and 42.5m high and is fronted by a two-story porch. The heavy buttresses soar upward to a slate roof dominated by a 33m high spire made of cedar, constructed in the 19th century as an exact replica of the 15th century spire.
The upper chapel has four bays and a seven section choir and the quality of the interior reinforces the fact that this was the part of the building reserved for the king, his close friends and family as well as for displaying the religious relics.
Supported by slender piers, the vaulted ceiling seems to float above the intricate stained-glass windows. The walls consist of fifteen 15.4m high and 4.25m wide stained glass windows housed in a delicate framework of stone. The thinness of the columns between the windows is an example of an absolute mastery of gothic art and are strengthened with tie beams. They comprise 1113 small pieces of glass, mostly in reds and blues and total 600sqm in area. Two-thirds of the pieces are original works, representing the finest examples of 12th century craftsmanship. Each window apart from the rose window is divided into arches and reads from left to right and from top to bottom telling the full story of the bible and the history of the relics.
Sainte-Chapelle was damaged by fire in 1630 and again in 1776 and then suffered considerable damage as a result of the French Revolution as it was perceived as a symbol of both religion and royalty. The chapel was converted to an administrative office and the windows were obscured by filing cabinets which inadvertently protected the stained glass although the spire was knocked down and the holy relics scattered.
The building was classified as a Historic National Monument of France in 1862 and under the eye of Viollet-le-Duc, significant restoration work was undertaken By 1868 the Sainte-Chapelle was returned to its previous splendor until the windows were carefully removed during World War II in anticipation of the German invasion of Paris and meticulously replaced in peace time.
Operations to restore and protect the windows have recently been initiated, with support from the Ministry of Culture as during the past fifty years the effects of air pollution have damaged the stained glass.

“I first visited the 13th-century Sainte-Chapelle in Paris as a student traveling around Europe. I have never forgotten the moment I entered the upper chapel to encounter a breathtaking blaze of light and colour.
Compared to the more oppressive lower chapel, with its low painted and gilded vaulted ceilings, the upper chapel soars skywards, its walls almost entirely made of stained glass. The reason for the contrast between the two levels is that while the ground level was for parish services, the upper storey was designed to house some particularly impressive holy relics amassed by Louis IX - the crown of thorns and a fragment of the cross.
As the visitor ascends the narrow spiral stairway it also evokes the transition from earthly existence to heaven. Even as an atheist, I regard it as a powerful example of harnessing light to evoke the spiritual and the sublime - something the great gothic architects truly understood.
A word of caution - only ever visit Sainte-Chapelle on a bright sunny day or the full effect will be lost.”
Jill Entwistle,
lighting editor, writer and author


Pic: Eric Rougier/



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