Saturday, December 27, 2008

TRAVEL REVIEW: Sainte-Chappelle--Jewel Hidden in the Heart of Paris

The Sainte-Chappelle ("Holy Chapel") was built by the devout Louis IX (later canonized as Saint Louis) to house his collection of holy relics, including a shard of the True Cross. Consecrated in 1248, the gothic chapel stands in the Île de la Cité; originally it occupied the courtyard of the Royal Palace. Now, this relatively small chapel is nearly hidden by the surrounding structures of the Palais de Justice. Sainte-Chappelle houses stunningly beautiful stained glass. Experiencing this building seemed to me like opening a shoe box hidden in the back of a closet--and finding an emerald inside.

Sainte-Chappelle has two levels: the lower level, which served as the parish church for the inhabitants of the palace, and the upper level, which contained the reliquaries and works of art intended to grace the worship of royalty and other dignitaries. But even the "common" lower level is decorated like a casket for precious stones: The pillars and vaulted ceiling are covered with fleurs-de-lis in gilded paint, set against rich, dark blues and russets. The intricate webwork of the gothic construction invites long moments of contemplative admiration.

But the upper level, with its breathtaking stained glass and soaring architecture, is where true inspiration awaits. The impression is of being surrounded by pure light and color--almost as if the delicate supporting stonework might disappear at any moment. Almost two-thirds of the glass is original. During the depredations of the French Revolution, Sainte-Chappelle was used as administrative offices, and huge filing cabinets covered most of the windows, saving them from the fate of the reliquaries, which were melted down after the holy relics were dispersed.

The chapel stands today as a prime example of French High Gothic architecture. It can be reached by Metro (disembark at the Cité station), bus, or taxi. Sainte-Chappelle has been a national historic site since 1862.