Text: Emily Ruck Keene
Image: Luciano Guelfi
I’d been past this place so many times on my bike and wondered at the long lines of predominantly Asian and American tourists standing outside, but never once had I dismounted to investigate the Sainte Chapelle, perhaps because of her transitory position on the Ile de la Cité, bridging Chatelet and Saint Michel. Although to say “bridging” is to demean the religious, political and historical importance of the area; where original settlers the Parisaii once decided to set up camp in the 1st century BC, and from which sprung the city as we know it.
Built from 1242-1248, King Louis IX ordered the construction of Sainte Chapelle to house the relics of the Passion of Christ which had belonged to the emperors of Constantinople. The building suffered damage during the revolutionary period, and 1846 saw the start of a large-scale restoration project, which gave us what we have today. There is further restoration work currently being carried out on the outside, but this does not prevent access to the chapel.
The access to the chapel is through a discreet door off the road, just to the left of the Palais de Justice. The queue can apparently get quite long, but it took me no more than 20 minutes to get in on a Sunday afternoon.
The Lower Chapel is unfortunately dominated by a large stand selling memorabilia, despite the historically important pieces of art it houses. Immediately to the left of the entrance is a tiny winding staircase in perfect juxtaposition with the grandeur of the Upper Chapel. After ducking your head as you climb the last of the old stone steps, you look up to see the chapel bathed in light filtering through the stained glass windows on all sides. Like the couple in front of me, and the family behind, my “ooooohhhhh” was audible.
Each arching window portrays beautiful episodes of the story of mankind from the Bible, and moves in a clockwise direction from Genesis to The history of the relics of the Passion. There are 1,113 scenes depicted in total in the 15 stained glass windows, 14 of which should be read from the bottom up, from left to right. The far facing window behind the altar celebrates the Passion of Christ and, swivelling around, you are struck by a symbolic burst of light from the rose-shaped window depicting The Apocalypse (of Saint John) at the far end. The light is stunning, and I recommend going on a bright day, when the sun streaming through the stained glass brings the scenes to life and dapples everyone in colour. I imagine sunrise would be mind-blowing….but sadly it only opens at 9.30a.m. Word on the street (and the website) is that they also hold concerts in the Upper Chapel. I don’t care what it is; tribute to Nirvana or Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’, I’m going.
Why the Sainte Chapelle is not well-known amongst Parisians, I do not know. Perhaps their apathy towards the heaving masses around the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur led them to write off all places of interest appearing on the top 5 tourist must-see lists. In any case, it’s a gem.
4 Boulevard du Palais, 1st
Metro: Cité, Saint Michel (4)
Monday – Sunday
March 1- October 31: 9.30am – 6pm
November 1- February 28: 9am – 5pm
Last entry 30 minutes before closure
Open late on Wednesdays between May 15 – September 15: Last admission 9pm
(Closed weekdays 1-2 pm)