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The choice colors of the painting, the costly gilding of the carving, the delicate translucency of the red glowing windows, the splendid altar carvings, the miracles working power of the sacred relics, and the decorations of the shrines sparkling with their precious stones lend this house of prayer such an intensity of adornment that entering one would think one had been transported to Heaven, setting foot in one of the finest rooms of Paradise (quoted from Toman, 486).
Above are the reflections of thirteenth century theologian Jean de Jandun on his first visit to the Parisian palace chapel, Sainte-Chapelle, in the year 1323. Sainte-Chapelle remains one of the world s most impressive cathedrals and serves as an example to the modern viewer as an excellent example of the Gothic style of architecture.
It is believed that Sainte-Chapelle was largely constructed in the early half of the 1240 s. The construction was commissioned by the pious King Louis IX, or Saint Louis, patron saint of France (Toman, 83). The chapel was built to house holy relics, specifically the Crown of Thorns, which under Louis IX s reign was brought to Paris from Byzantium (Toman, 83). Pierre de Montreuil, a true virtuoso (Simson, 200), acted as chief architect on the project and he conceived the church as a reliquary enclosed by sixty-six hundred square feet of stained glass windows (Icher, 138). Sainte-Chapelle is unique among Gothic buildings in that its walls were gilded and inlaid with glass in order to replicate the look of enamel. This technique was used so that the masonry would resemble as closely as possible the gold and jeweled reliquary that held the Crown of Thorns (Wilson, 181-2). In essence, the entire chapel became an opulent container for Louis holy acquisitions.
Sainte-Chapelle, beyond its obvious religious importance, was also a politically important building. Rising up from a large palace courtyard, it is made no mystery to the chapel s visitors that Sainte-Chapelle is a palace chapel; the masonry is emblazoned with patterns of gilded fleur-de-lis (Icher, 134) and other symbols of French royal coats of arms (Toman, 87). The spectacular stained glass windows are topped by glass patterned in unobtrusive crowns (Toman, 87). However, Sainte-Chapelle s decorative details are not the only aspect of this building that gives it such political weight.
As a house for the Crown of Thorns, Sainte-Chapelle immediately gained importance as a political structure; the Crown of Thorns an easy connection to be made to the divine Crown of France. Louis, a pious and rarely extravagant king, wanted the building to have a classic, staying feel. He wanted to avoid the use of the then trendy architectural style, the Rayonnant. Instead, the vaults of Sainte-Chapelle s upper chapel demonstrate a long line, a simple and elegant architectural style that Louis felt better represented France under his rule (Toman, 87).
Sainte-Chapelle did indeed gain the recognition it deserved and that Louis perhaps wanted it to receive. Several of France s larger cathedrals, such as the cathedral at Reims, drew on ideas from Sainte-Chapelle s architecture (Brandenburg, 305). It is told that England s King Henry III wanted to put Sainte-Chapelle on a wagon and relocate it to London (Toman, 95) and as it turns out, Westminster Abbey shows Sainte-Chapelle s influence in its window ornamentations (Wilson, 181). If French architectural style was not already known as pointing the way forward (Toman, 95), after the construction of Sainte-Chapelle, the word was certainly out. Sainte-Chapelle has become the art historical standard for the classic Gothic style of architecture.
The political overtones surrounding the construction of Sainte-Chapelle were not always so obvious. In fact, there are a few subtle architectural details that add to the political and historical importance of this piece of France s artistic heritage. Sainte-Chapelle is a two-story building. The upper level is considered the royal chapel, a space for the king, his family and closest associates to worship; the lower level is for more common worship. Already, with the consideration of this two-story construction, it is clear that in its design, Sainte-Chapelle was conceived with a clear division of royal space and common space. In fact, the king had a separate, raised entrance from the palace to the chapel so that he could enter the upper level directly. This sort of differentiation between royal space and common space is interpreted as a reference to Charlemagne s palace chapel at Aachen, where his throne was separated and elevated from the rest of the space in the building. Louis IX makes subtle references between himself and the first Holy Roman Emperor with the unusual layout of Sainte-Chapelle.
Political agendas aside, Sainte-Chapelle is visually one of the Gothic periods most visually stunning achievements. Webbed vaults, painted midnight blue and decorated with gilded stars, hang over what appears to be walls constructed only of red, blue and gold glass. Sainte-Chapelle s use of Gothic architectural techniques such as tie-rods within the nave and transept to compensate for the thrust of the high vaulted ceilings allowed for more windowed surfaces. With this technology, Pierre de Montreuil, with the help of stained glass artist Jean Fouquet, created a cathedral that appears to be made of walls of glass. During the medieval period, stained glass windows served the same their often illiterate viewers as a book or newspaper would for a literate person. They conveyed information about social thought, told stories, and often revealed devotions particular to a certain church or community (Icher, 131). Sainte-Chapelle s iconographic program of window cycles tells the stories of several Old Testament kings and queens, conjuring up associations between the achievements of these historical greats with the buildings commissioner, King Louis IX. These stories are told by multiple pictorial fields which are framed by backgrounds of colored glass arranged in tapestry-like patterns. The tracery in the windows is executed in the High Gothic style. Fluid drapery folds, jewel-like colors and rich decorations mark the Early Gothic style. The High Gothic style is known for its elegant proportions and large-scale delineated drapery folds (Toman, 472). These tracery characteristics can be easily scene in the window cycle of Queen Esther. The Esther cycle is meant to be a piece for visiting queens to reflect upon and measure their behavior against. No detail in the window cycles is coincidental. Some cycles act as teaching tools to the observer, while others act as political propaganda. In fact, the cycles that tell of the great deeds of Old Testament kings and queens ends with a pictorial representation of King Louis IX bringing the Crown of Thorns to Paris (Toman, 472). This less than inadvertent placement links Louis directly to the Christian heritage of the Old Testament and labels him as immortal a religious figure as the personalities found in the Bible.
Whether Sainte-Chapelle is viewed as historically important for its political significance or for its place in art and architectural history, its beauty is unmistakable. It is a visual feast, chromatically sumptuous and gloriously opulent and it stands as a testament to the cultural and political wealth of 13th century France.
Brandenburg, Alain Erlande, The Cathedral , Cambridge University Press, New York, 1989.
Icher, Francois, Building the Great Cathedrals , Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998.
Toman, Rolf, Gothic: Architecture, Sculpture, Picture , Konemann, Cologne, Germany, 1999.
Von Simson, Otto, The Gothic Cathedral , Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1956.
Wilson, Christopher, The Gothic Cathedral , Thames and Hudson, London, 1990.