Paris – The Sainte Chapelle

IN the Sainte-Chapelle, now irrelevantly attached to the Palais de Justice, but built, eight hundred years ago, to form part of the ancient palace of the kings of France, we reach the very acme of Gothic supremacy.

In all the monuments which we have visited till now we have been thrilled by the evident traces of the mighty struggle which marked the transition from Romanesque to Gothic—nowhere more convincingly presented than in the church of Saint-Martin. The churches and buildings finished in the XIIIth century are nearly all Romanesque at the base with a superstructure showing Gothic principles grafted on an intermediate or transition style. Since the construction of an important edifice usually covered a century or more, old styles declined while others were born and developed during the process.

The Sainte-Chapelle, on the contrary, is one of those rare types which characterize an epoch. Its construction covered the briefest space of time, for, begun in 1245 and finished in 1248, it was the work of one artist, done under one inspiration.

Built for Saint-Louis by his gifted architect, Pierre de Montereau, at the height of his career, and destined to contain the Crown of Thorns and a portion of the True Cross, the Sainte-Chapelle is not to be considered as an ordinary chapel, but as a glorified chasse or shrine, a hallowed casket, upon which were lavished all the riches that art and industry could produce at this time.

Saint-Louis spared nothing to make the Sainte-Chapelle the most brilliant jewel of his realm. From all times this little marvel of the Moyen Age has been considered a chef-d’oeuvre. It has a lightness and fineness in its ensemble, a research in the execution of its details and accessories unequalled in other monuments of the XIIIth century, and though classed as belonging to the first period of pointed Gothic, forms almost a style apart.

Into the plans of the king, Pierre de Montereau threw himself heart and soul. The speed with which the work was conceived and executed, while astonishing, was the chief contributing factor of its unity and completeness. At most, Viollet-le-Duc assures us, the erection of the chapel, from foundation to completion, did not exceed five years. ” If,” says this distinguished authority, ” one observe with scrupulous attention the archaeological character of the Sainte-Chapelle, one is forced to recognize the exactitude of these historic dates. The method of construction and ornamentation belongs to this minute fraction of the XIIIth century. During the reigns of Philippe Auguste and Saint-Louis progress in architecture was so rapid that a period of five years introduced appreciable changes ; whereas in this edifice the greatest unity reigns from base to summit.”

To the pious haste which the king showed to enshrine appropriately the precious relics of which he had become possessed, the population, equally enthused, added its vigorous cooperation. We are to suppose that skilled workmen considered it a privilege to contribute their labour to enhance the splendour of the reliquary intended for the chief treasures of the Christian world. We know that eight hundred thousand livres tournois (something over two and a half millions of francs) were employed in the construction and decoration of the chapel and in the acquisition of the relics it enclosed. And this sum, though considered of a vastness at a time when the principal chaplains were esteemed rich upon a revenue of three hundred and sixty-eight francs, must have gone largely to the emperor of Constantinople, from whom the relics were purchased, and for the raw material employed.

The walls, the pillars, the columns were overlaid with gold and illuminated with the finest and most brilliant of colours, incrusted with precious stones and embellished with choice enamels; while the light of day, itself, was admitted through the immense windows of which the upper story seems entirely composed, only after having been passed through precious coloured glass, designed with multiple imagery, in dominating notes of blue and red.

One of these windows recounts, in a series of sixty-seven panels, the history of the treasures of the Sainte-Chapelle in detail from the time that Baudouin II, fifth Latin emperor of the Orient, decided, in 1237, to cede the sacred souvenirs of the Passion of Christ to Saint-Louis, to the moment of their triumphal entry into the repository prepared for them.

History, chronicles, and popular tradition tell with what demonstrations of piety Louis IX, having secured the relics for France, in 1239, brought them into Paris. It was the poverty of the imperial treasury of Constantinople that induced Baudouin to sell them at a time when his country was menaced by wars on all sides. For safety the relics had been already confided to the care of the Venetians and were deposited at San Marco. There Saint-Louis sent an escort to receive them, and setting out himself with his queen, his brothers, various bishops and other dignitaries, met the procession at Villeneuve-l’Archeveque, near Sens, which was the seat of the archbishop of the diocese of Paris.

Saint-Louis, aided by his brother, the comte d’Artois, carried on his shoulders the pavilion containing the Crown of Thorns, and thus charged, clad only in a tunic, he trod barefoot the streets of Sens and Paris, filled with a religious enthusiasm which later he was to employ against the infidels in the Holy Wars.

Later, in 1241, he carried with the same pro-found humility, his hands covered with a cloth, the cross of gold with the double branch received from the Byzantine emperor. The relics were placed provisionally in the chapel of Saint-Nicolas, which Louis le Gros had built within the walls of the Palais.

It was upon the site of this chapel, Saint Nicolas, that the king, finding himself possessed of such riches, resolved to build a shrine worthy of their reception.

The architect of the Sainte-Chapelle was Pierre de Montereau, the same who built the famous Virgin’s Chapel of the abbey of Saint-Germaindes-Pres. The plan is simple and elegant, the two chapels, one over the other, is a characteristic of the epoch. Saint-Louis, himself, placed the corner-stone, in 1245, and on April 25, 1248, the chapels were consecrated, the upper one, re-served to the king and the royal family, by Eudes de Chateauroux, bishop of Tusculum, the pope’s legate in France, under the title of Sainte-Couronne et Sainte-Croix; and the lower chapel by Philippe Berruier, bishop of Bourges, under the invocation of the Sainte-Vierge. The lower chapel served for officers of the second order attached to the palace. The church was thus divided into two floors to correspond with the divisions of the palace, the proper entrances being from the palace by means of the doubly porch. The king thus arrived on foot without going outside.

When built the Sainte-Chapelle stood within a wide space and was visible in its ensemble from all sides. Now the north side of the chapel is completely masked by the modern Palais, while its free parts are circumscribed and encroached upon by a totally irrelevant and hostile environment. No setting could be less promising, no approach less inviting than this restricted court, with its heavy, ugly paving, yielding grudgingly the few square feet of breathing space before the master-piece.

Like all the churches of the Middle Ages the apse of the Sainte-Chapelle is turned towards the east. We enter the enclosure therefore, from the Boulevard du Palais, from the rear and, walking about close to the stupid buildings which imprison the jewel, arrive by dint of much force of character and imagination to see the building a little as Pierre de Montereau intended it.

As a chapel in the strict sense of the word, the edifice consists of a choir, without nave or transepts. The form is of an elegant simplicity, very compact, essentially a chasse, a casket on a large scale ; everything in its design and in its details works out the primal thought, that we have before us the shrine of the Crown of Thorns.

Though they are much more impressive from within, and one is always in haste to get inside, the windows even from without are the first thing which strikes the attention. The whole casket seems at first to be made of leaded glass, the whole of this precious upper chapel, which enclosed the relics, is supported entirely by its short, massive piers, the walls with their lofty windows, just separated by slender buttresses, merely enclose the interior, which is of a lightness extraordinarily spiritual.

Everything in the exterior points upwards, with an effect of remarkable elevation. The great height of the building is very striking. The buttresses which sustain all the weight of the vaulting rise to the full height of the sides between the windows and terminate in rich, foliated pinnacles. Between them gables, richly sculptured, surmount the stupendous height of the windows. The roof is extremely sharp and from its centre rises the truly exquisite fleche, though a third restoration, which seems to carry the spirit soaring to the skies.

Statues of eight angels carrying the instruments of Passion are poised between the gables of the second story of the spire, and in the bays of the lower story stand the twelve apostles. At the ridge of the apse, upon the point of the gable, is an angel of heroic size, in lead, holding the processional cross. This figure turns on its axis by means of a mechanical device and shows successively the symbol of salvation to all points of the horizon.

This spire is a restoration by Lassus. The first one, placed by Montereau, having crumbled with age was succeeded by a second, under Charles VI, made by Robert Fouchier. The second spire was consumed by fire and replaced by Louis XIII, in 1630. The third spire was sacrificed in the Revolution, and the present erection dates from the last general restoration of the chapel under Louis-Philippe. It is in the flowery style of the second half of the XVth century and recalls the design of Fouchier.

Geoffroy Deschaume, who worked upon the restorations of the facade of Notre-Dame, modelled. the figures of this fleche, and Guilhermy, in a very complete monograph on the Sainte-Chapelle, tells us that the heads of the apostles are portraits of the people who contributed to the restoration of the chapel.

The principal facade shows two porches which give access to the two chapels, surmounted by a balustrade, above which is the great rose window, occupying the full width of the building. Above this again is a balustrade and two steeples which accompany the pointed gable. On the points of these steeples the crown of thorns is placed over the royal crown of France. Most of the facade above the porches was rebuilt about the middle of the XVth century, under Charles VIII, whose device, crowned by two angels, occupies the middle of the second balustrade. The rose is handsome in the flamboyant style.

The entrance to the lower chapel is below the present level of the court. Needless to say the sculpture of the doorway is modern, but the deco-ration of the stylobate, containing the towers of Castille, in honour of the mother of Saint-Louis, and the fleurs-de-lys of the blazon of France, is the same.

The lower chapel is full of mystery and suggestion. Forty short, stout pillars sustain the vaulting, of which the keys, in sculptured chestnut wood, are very remarkable. The place is full of obscurity, since but little light penetrates the handsome triangular windows. The floor is paved with thirty-four curious tombstones of the XIVth and XVth centuries, carved with the effigies of treasurers and canons of the chapel. Boileau the poet was buried amongst them—his remains after-wards removed to Saint-Germain-des-Pres—and amongst the famous tombs is that of the treasurer, Philippe de Rully, who died in 1400.

Old engravings of the building show an external stairway of forty-two steps, which mounted by a covered way to the upper chapel, though as we have said the proper entrance was through the palace. At present visitors mount by the tiny stone spiral, intended for the service, in the corner of the building near the entrance.

From so unpropitious an entrance, climbing steeply, one arrives suddenly into the rear right-hand corner of the upper chapel. Perhaps the thing to do is to walk at once resolutely out upon the porch and give one’s self the treat of coming upon the rich effect of the chapel as Saint-Louis saw it, coming from the palace, but this is some-thing I have scarcely ever had the courage to do. The interior so immediately grasps and holds one. I think on the whole that the effect is more in the spirit of the building when approached by means of this old mediaeval stairway, this mere hatch-way, whence, debouching into the heart of the exalted chamber, dazzled by the pure transparency of the windows which gleam on all sides, enveloped in the violet radiance compounded of the dominant blue and red rays which pierce the glass, one thinks to one’s self, in the words of Jean de Jandun, ” ravished to the skies,” ” introduced into one of the most beautiful chambers of Paradise.”

Never were windows more jewel-like than these. One seems to stand in a palace of rubies and sapphires, the glass is so pure in colour, so brilliant in its perfect clarity. One is first struck by the immense extent of the windows which mount to the turn of the vaultings and are separated only by the piers. The edifice would seem to have but little solidity were it not for the vigorous tone of its glass and the firm, geometric design which give it a fictitious strength.

Of these marvellous and magnificent windows which form the chief interest of the interior, there are fifteen-four, wide and high, fill as many bays each side of the big parallelogram, seven enclose its apse, the narrower bays unfolding in a half-circle like an open fan. These windows, mutilated during and after the Revolution, present a restoration, with original glass, so well done that Guilhermy assures us that Saint-Louis and Pierre de Montereau would find the splendour of their glass unchanged.

As I write the task of remounting the windows, dismantled during the great war, has just been accomplished. As a rule statistics are boring and ‘irrelevant, our purpose being appreciation pure and simple, but it means something, I think, to know that it took six weeks to take the windows out and eight months to put them back. Last summer (1919) after the signing of peace, they, with many others, were exhibited at the Petit Palais. It was an opportunity that may never occur again to study them at close range and to become familiar with the processes of such expert work and the rarity of the ancient materials. Subjects barely decipherable in place were readily distinguishable and a wealth of faithful work was revealed.

The series of windows begins with the first window at the foot of the nave on the north side. Its ninety-one subjects cover the book of Genesis, depict the Creation, Adam and Eve, picture the first men, the Deluge, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the history of Joseph.

Subjects from the Old Testament fill seven windows of the nave and four of the apse; the Gospel story is told in the remaining three windows of the apse; and the fifteenth window, at the foot of the nave, on the south side, is devoted to a series of pictures which relate in careful detail the story of the Cross and the Crown of Thorns with their journey from Constantinople to Paris.

This window, which for subject is most interesting, has sixty-seven panels, many containing representations of Saint-Louis, his brother Robert, the comte d’Artois, and a queen, probably Blanche de Castille, figures many times. The drawings are the work of artists who certainly saw the reception of the relics and who traced the chief circumstances which passed under their eyes. Who shall say that they may not be portraits of the principal characters as well?

Each side of the nave, under the third windows, is a deep niche let into the wall, over which a figure of Christ in an attitude of benediction is surrounded by angels, bearing censers. These were places of honour reserved for the king, the queen, and the royal family. The oratory of the king is embellished with the fleur-de-lys; that of the queen with the towers of Castille.

The altar (destroyed) was placed before the slender arcade which traverses the apse, somewhat in the manner of a rood-loft, but which, differing in intention, scarcely veils the sanctuary. Seven light, pointed arches are carried on fine, slender columns, embellished with glass mosaics and deco-rated with angels, gilded. The middle arch, wider than the others, supports a platform upon which rests the baldaquin of sculptured wood, where the relics of the chapel were exposed. The chasse, sparkling with ,jewels, thus dominated the whole chapel, and when, on solemn occasions, its panels were partly opened to show the treasures of the tabernacle, it was like a radiant apparition of the celestial Jerusalem.

Behind the arcade two spiral stairways in wood mount to the platform. That on the left is original. These, we are told, are the actual treads which Saint-Louis climbed piously to show to the people below the Crown of Thorns.

The chasse containing the great relics was locked with three keys. The king confided one to the care of his grand chamberlain, another to the treasurer of the chapel, and the third was kept by his goldsmith. The treasurer was usually a personage of high distinction. He wore the mitre and the ring, and is named in different deeds as ” le pape de la Sainte-Chapelle.” Besides the treasurer the service of the chapel included a precentor, twelve canons, nineteen chaplains, and thirteen clerks.

Volumes have been written about the treasures of the Sainte-Chapelle, with a brief for their authenticity. They included many curious things such as the robe worn by the infant Jesus which extended itself miraculously with his growth, the lance which pierced his side, one of the three nails, some blood of the Saviour, some milk from the Virgin, the rod of Moses.

After the death of Saint-Louis the skull of that monarch was added to the collection, incased in a handsome reliquary in gilded silver made by Guillaume Juliani. This reliquary consisted of a life-size bust of the king, supported by four angels, the base resting upon the backs of four lions, and embellished with twenty-eight royal figures with their names. The souvenir itself, without the reliquary, had belonged to the treasury of Saint-Denis, but Philippe le Bel obtained permission from the pope to transfer the head to the Sainte-Chapelle. At this loss the Benedictines of the abbey of Saint-Denis felt so aggrieved that the head was divided and the lower jaw left at Saint-Denis. The transference was made on the Tuesday after Ascension Day, in the year 1306, with extraordinary pomp.

At the outbreak of the Revolution the chasse was sent to the mint to be melted into bullion, its rich jewels were cashed. Notre-Dame in the course of time received the sacred relics. The Bibliotheque Nationale was accorded the celebrated antique cameo of the apotheosis of Auguste, and the bust of the emperor Titus in agate, which surmounted the staff of the precentor. This bust had been metamorphosed into a likeness of Saint-Louis, by reason of a certain inherent resemblance, and thus, rejoices an old writer, the Roman emperor assisted daily at the service of the Sainte-Chapelle, holding in one hand a little cross and in the other a crown of thorns. ” Certes, l’empereur Titus ne s’y attendoit pas!” The skull of Saint-Louis was never found.

After the rites of consecration of a church the officiating priest traces on the walls or columns twelve crosses to be afterwards reproduced permanently. To conserve the memory of the consecration of the Sainte-Chapelle these crosses are carried by statues of the twelve apostles placed on consoles adjusted to the pillars. The fourth, fifth, and sixth statues on the north and the third, fourth, and fifth on the south side are originals. Executed in hard limestone, covered with ornaments, painted and gilded in imitation of rich stuffs, set off by borderings of precious stones, these figures prove the strength of the sculptors of the XIIIth century and by their movement and animation and the eloquence of their draperies show a distinct awakening.

The great rose window of Charles VIII fills the entire west wall of the chapel, and below it is an arcade with sculptures representing the martyrdoms.

The rose, done towards the end of the XVth century, has not the brilliancy nor vivacity of the other windows and suffers by comparison. In common with the masters of his epoch the unknown author sacrifices general effect to detail and instead of a vigorous mosaic he produces a series of compositions which must be regarded closely if all their delicacy is to be seized. He employs tertiary colours in charming shades which are dissipated by the passage of light through them.

The seventy-nine subjects herein contained re-late to the Apocalypse, and are readily followed. The vision of Saint John is pictured with grace and charm which merits close examination in detail, for several of the pictures of which it is composed are little masterpieces of design and execution.

There is no danger that the loiterer will miss seeing the grill set obliquely in the wall on the right-hand side of the upper chapel, built by Louis XI in order that he could hear mass and see the shrine without being exposed. No guide will permit this bit of history to be overlooked, nor the fact that below this little construction was a small oratory where Saint-Louis retired to hear the office recited in the lower chapel.

In the second bay on the left is a door which communicated with an external gallery. Nothing is left but a corridor to show for the three-story construction built by Montereau as an annex to the apse, which had the honour to house one of the first public libraries of Europe. Geoffroy de Beaulieu, counsellor, aumonier, and confessor of Saint-Louis, recounts that when the prince was in Palestine he heard of a Saracen sultan who searched out and had translated at his own expense books of all kinds which could be useful to the savants of his country, collecting them in his library where they could be consulted without difficulty.

Saint-Louis with enthusiasm set about the establishment of a similar library. He had copies made of the manuscripts of the different abbeys, and placed them in a room contiguous to the chapel. When the little collection was installed he placed it at the disposition of all those who wished to study, coming frequently himself, during his hours of leisure, to the library, where, finding sometimes beside him subjects whose education was inferior to his own, he translated for them from the Latin what they could not make out. The library occupied the upper story of this annex, the rooms below serving as sacristies. This annex was suppressed in 1776, after the fire, and was sacrificed to the extension of the Palais.

The sculptures of the upper porch are restorations. The Last Judgment is the subject of the tympanum and the central pier of the door sup-ports the figure of Christ. The absorbingly interesting, features of the porch are the lozenge reliefs to the right and left of the portal, which represent with a delicious naivete on one side, God the Father creating the world, the sun, the moon, light, planets, animals, man, etc., and, on the other, the story of Genesis, Cain and Abel, the Flood, the Ark, Noah’s sacrifice, Noah’s vine, etc.

Immediately upon the outbreak of the Revolution the Sainte-Chapelle was seized and made to serve as a club and later as a granary, then as a repository for the archives of the Palais. At this time the most unpardonable mutilations of the monument occurred when three metres of the windows were taken out in order to place the cases.

Mutilated within and without, its painting and gilding worn off or obliterated or buried under mould, its sculpture broken, deprived of its spire, its gables, its pinnacles, balustrades, and steeples, the building was so far gone that it was long a question of demolition. Louis XVIII and Charles X had wished vainly to restore the chapel of their ancestors, and finally, in 1837, in the reign of Louis-Philippe, the long contemplated reconstruction was begun. The work was first confided to Duban, then Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc were added. After the execution of the most pressing work Lassus carried the work to completion.

The Louvre retains a beautiful statue in terra cotta by Germain Pilon, made for the Sainte-Chapelle during the Renaissance. It is a seated Virgin, the head veiled, the hands crossed, in an attitude of prayer. It still bears traces of a colouring that must have been in harmony with the chapel, though its style is of a so much later epoch.