Many years ago, a seasoned traveler once wrote that if you are ever going to visit Sainte-Chapelle with someone whom you might suspect of not being particularly susceptible to beauty, it would be much better if you went there alone, since to go there with someone who might not enjoy it would only spoil your fun. People with little or no sense for the beautiful sometimes let us down like that through no fault of their own. However, you and I don’t have to worry about anything like that because we are going there together.
I guess it would be possible to come to Paris and miss Sainte-Chapelle, especially since it is hidden away in a court so that only its upper part and its fleche ex tend above the surrounding buildings. But even if it stood out in the open, you might still walk past it, for its chief features are its stained glass windows and it is the nature of stained glass not to reveal its beauty except When one looks out through it against the light.
From the Tour d’Horloge to the beginning of the Cour du Mai might be a distance of about two hundred feet, and it is from this court that you reach the chapel. You will have no difficulty recognizing the Cour du Mai because on the boulevard side of it there is a magnificent, gold-pointed, twenty-foot-high, ornamental wrought iron fence with an even more ornamental entrance gate. This fence is the work of Bigonnet, who worked on it from 1783 to 1785. It was, therefore, already standing there when the tumbrils lumbered through its main entrance. You will, no doubt, find this main entrance closed, but there is a smaller gate, with a gendarme at its entrance, at the far end, and that is the gate you will have to use. You need pay no attention to this gendarme, at least not in this case, for whatever his duties may be, he is not there to challenge the tourists. He is probably there because this gate is also the entrance to the Law Courts.
After you have passed this guardian, all you will have to do is to pass through the archway which slants off at a slight angle to your left and you will be in the court in which Sainte-Chapelle stands. When this chapel was built, it stood comparatively free in what was then a large court. But as the centuries rolled by, other additions were made to the Palace of Justice, so that the chapel is now completely hemmed in on all sides except one, and even there the space is very small. So if you have any ideas that you are going to take some pictures of it, you might as well forget about that right now. Whatever published pictures have been taken of it have all been taken with a telephoto lens, probably from one of the upper floors of the buildings across the street. However, in order to help you understand more fully what we will see later, I would first like to tell you something about the King at whose order this chapel was built.
As I already mentioned when I told you something about the founding of Paris, Sainte-Chapelle was built at the order of Saint Louis as a sanctuary for the Crown of Thorns which he had ransomed froln the Venetians in 1239 who, in turn, had held it in pawn from the Emperor of Constantinople. It was not, therefore, primarily built for the relics Saint Louis brought back with him from his crusades, as you will sometimes see stated in guide books, for the simple reason that Saint Louis did not return from the first of his two crusades until sixteen years later. Sainte-Chapelle was built during the years 1246-1248 and in the incredibly short time of only thirty-three months. Just what that means, you will see when we get to the inside. Although Saint Louis-he was actually Louis IX-was canonized only twenty-seven years after he died, it would be a mistake to think of him only as a saint. Saintly he no doubt was, but he was also an ideal King. He was the son of Louis VIII and the famous Blanche of Castile who, in turn, was the daughter of Alphonse VIII of Castile and Eleanore of England. This Eleanore, in turn, was the daughter Henry II of England had by Eleanore of Aquitaine. Saint Louis’s father, on the other hand, was the eldest son of no less a person than our Philippe-Auguste. They were, no doubt, all of them people well worth being related to.
When Saint Louis’s father died in 1226, Queen Blanche lost no time in having her son crowned King of France at Reims, when he was just a little more than twelve years old. She then ruled France until he became of age, and that. is just another one of the many pictures of the history of France we will see later at the Pantheon. Like her son, whom she educated with great care, Queen Blanche is said to have been of a pious turn of mind, but she was also a very determined woman. When the worthless King John of England died in 1216 he had ultimately succeeded his father, Henry II-Queen Blanche promptly induced her husband to invade England and claim the English crown for herself, she herself going to Calais to supervise the organization of the fleets.
However, nothing came of this intended invasion any more than of those that have been tried since. And now, before I get you completely confused with these genealogies, let us return once more to Saint Louis.
History tells us that Saint Louis was an accomplished knight, of great physical strength, fearless in battle, and heroic in adversity. The French chronicler, ,Joinville, who accompanied him on his first crusade, but refused to go on his second, tells us that he stood a full head above any of his knights. And yet, with all these splendid physical attributes, we are told that he was humble, alike before God and men, and that he was an object of reverence to all who knew him. After the return from his first crusade, which lasted from 1248 to 1254 (in the history of the Crusades, this was actually the Seventh Crusade), during which he was taken prisoner and had to be ransomed for five hundred thousand livres, he resumed his life as King of France, building hospitals, taking care of the poor, and personally ministering to the ill. Just how high Saint Louis stood as a knight in the estimate of the Saracens, may be gathered from the story which Joinville tells us to the effect that when his emissaries went before the Sultan to inform him that their King had accepted his terms, the Sultan’s admiration for him was so great that he told them to go back and tell him that he himself would pay one hundred thousand livres out of his own pocket toward his ransom.
But this is not the end of the story yet, for even after all these failures, the idea of delivering Jerusalem kept preying on the King’s mind. So, on the 16th of March, 1270, to the great grief of his mother, he started out again on his second. He was then already fifty-six years of age and there was little enthusiasm in the land for another crusade. Unfortnately, this crusade, like the first, was compounded of more religious zeal than military planning and ended in disaster again. His armies had no sooner landed in Tunis when supplies began to run short. His troops became ill from the unaccustomed heat and died by the thousands. In the end, Saint Louis himself was struck down by fever from which he died in his tent only five months after they had left France. Joinville was not with him then, to record the event, but we are told that the good King’s last feeble words were “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” But I guess that was the way a good many people, including Tasso, felt about Jerusalem in those days and for a good many centuries after. Saint Louis’s. second crusade was the Eighth Crusade in the history of the Crusades. It was also to be the last. So much then, for St. Louis, the Crusades, and the generosity of the Mussulman. And now, let us go and see what this chapel,. which was, in a way, the result of this religious enthusiasm,. looks like.
The design of Sainte-Chapelle is attributed to the architect Pierre Montereau, but there must have been hundreds of craftsmen of equal skill to complete a build ing of such intricacy in such a short time, especially when you consider that all of this work had, so to say, to go on simultaneously. Since you will, no doubt, have heard of this chapel before, your first view of the inside of it is apt to puzzle you. But that is only because SainteChapelle consists of two chapels-a lower one and a upper one, one above the other. In order to get to the upper chapel you will have to enter the lower one first_ This lower chapel is quite plain, that is to say, if anything in this building can be called plain. Its arched ceiling is but twenty-three feet high, and is supported by two rows of twenty coumns each. Except for the decorations on the capitals of these columns, which consist of delicately sculptured leaves, flowers and small animals from the flora and fauna common to the Ile de France, and the unusually resourceful manner-of interest mostly to architects-eMontereau employed in his vaulting in order to support the heavy floor above, the tourist will probably not see anything very unusual about it. Under the floor slabs rest the remains of numerous church dignitaries and noblemen who were interred here in about the same manner people were interred under the floor of the Royal Chapel of Saint Peter-ad-Vincula on the Tower Greens in London. These slabs used to be marked, but since the slabs formed part of the floor, most ,of the markings have gradually become obliterated. Among the better-known rnen whose remains were laid to rest under this floor was the great French satirist Boileau, after one of whose poems Alexander Pope fashioned his Rape o f the Lock.
During the time the French Kings still occupied their palace on the Cite, the lower chapel was reserved for the use of pilgrinls, and the upper one was reserved for the King and his household. The only way to get from the lower to the upper chapel is by way of the very narrow ,circular stairways located in each of the slender corner towers. “These stairways are so narrow that one can ascend them only in single file. They are, in consequence marked “UP” and “DOWN.” However, the French have their own idea how to accomplish this: they merely placed a sign on the down side reading “ENTRANCE PROHIBITED,” leaving it up to your good judgment to go up the side where it doesn’t say anything. In this connection, I know of at least one tourist who years ago, on account of this sign, left the lower chapel without having seen the upper one, but naturally, I am not going to tell you his name. Originally, however, there was a large, covered exterior stairway that led up to the King’s loggia also. This loggia was the King’s private entrance to the upper chapel and connected the chapel directly with the second floor of his palace. It now leads into the law courts.
The upper chapel of Sainte-Chapelle, which, as I hope you have guessed by this time, means the Holy Chapel, has often been described as a dream, and in one of my French books on Paris, the author even describes it as a Snare for the Soul. I don’t know whether or not this. chapel could still be described as a snare for the soul because all sanctity was eliminated from it during the French Revolution and never restored. But a dreamand a dream of transcendent loveliness-it still is, for as soon as you step out of the narrow stairway you will find yourself in a jewel box of which the walls all about you seem to consist entirely of stained glass.
There are fifteen windows in this chapel, each of which is fifty feet high and fifteen feet wide, with the space between them, that is to say, the buttresses which support the roof, so narrow that you are not conscious of them at all. Fourteen of these windows represent definite scenes. from the Bible, and the fifteenth shows Saint Louis, the finding of the relics and the final dedication of the chapel. That is Sainte-Chapelle. What use would it be for me to tell you that a total of eleven hundred thirtyfour scenes are depicted in these windows, or to describe to you the almost unearthly light that filters through them, especially on a bright day? And who, do you think, designed these windows? Who were the highly skilled thirteenth-century craftsmen who melted, cut, etched and’ assembled this glass? Nobody knows. But to me, the work of these craftsmen, too, is a marvel.
Today, Sainte-Chapelle is maintained by the French Government along with other historic monuments of France. And as it has stood there since 1248, it also had to be repaired and even restored a number of times. But in spite of its seven hundred fifty years, we are told that there still isn’t a fissure in its walls and that about sixty per cent of its glass is still the original glass. Needless to say, the French Revolution had to take its vengeance on this masterpiece too. The relics which Saint Louis had collected with such zeal were melted down and anything which resembled a fleur-de-lis or a royal crown was remorselessly effaced, though they seemed to have missed the large wrought-iron crown on Bigonnet’s entrance gate. Whatever was left of these relics is now in the treasury of Notre-Dame. After the Revolution the chapel was used for a long time as a storage room for documents. The slender spire you see in the middle of it was severely damaged also because it, too, was adorned with royal emblems and had to be completely rebuilt. It rises to a height of one hundred eight feet above the roof and, like the fleche on Notre-Dame, it is built out of oak and covered with lead.
And now, let us take a walk over to Notre-Dame, for all of these places can easily be visited in one afternoon. Only, before we do so, we ought to take this opportunity to stop at the open-air bird market, which is only a short block away. In order to get there all we will have to do is to walk down the Rue de Lutece which is directly across the street from Bigonnet’s entrance gate. Unfortunately, this market is held on Sundays only, so that you will have to plan this trip for that day. On all other days it is a flower market. But what you will see there in the nature of ornamental birds, some of them so small that a dozen of them sitting on a rung look like a string of colored beads, will amaze you. Incidentally, and this is a very good time to tell you this, all museums and historical sites in Paris are open every day of the week, including Sunday, except on-TUESDAYS.