(This is being written over a week since we returned from France, but the memories are still fresh and vivid!)
Sainte-Chapelle was always high on our list during the month we were there. The lines to get in are long (there is room for only a certain number of people at a time), one day we were just too tired, and another day I think the weather discouraged us. But on this, our last day in Paris, we were definitely going to see it.
During our time here, we’ve seen and done many things. In more than one post I’ve written about the grand scale on which one finds things. The massive cathedrals (Notre Dame, Chartres), the huge gardens (Tuileries & Versailles), the big church organs (Saint Sulpice & Sainte Eustache), the great palaces (Versailles), the great art museums (D’Orsay & The Louvre), they are all grand gestures that make you wonder how — in their times — they were ever created.
And even though by comparison Sainte-Chapelle is a fraction the size of, say, Chartres, it’s an incredible place to visit on so many levels. Translated, Sainte-Chapelle means Holy Chapel. And it was indeed a holy chapel that King Louis IX had built to house his Passion relics, which included the crown of thorns forced on Jesus’ head as part of the scourging that led to his crucifixion.
Sainte-Chapelle was built between 1239 and 1248 and was originally surrounded by the royal palace which is no longer there. Instead it is oddly surrounded by government buildings near the Paris Palace of Justice. You can see its highest features from surrounding neighborhoods, but the actual building and its exterior are hidden from view until you pass through a security gate, walk through another building and enter what is now the courtyard where it can be found.
Sainte-Chapelle isn’t a large structure, though it’s still probably bigger then your church down the street. What is most incredible about this place from a visual perspective is how, when you enter the sanctuary, it is all windows! There seem to be nothing to support the considerable ceiling above. Just beautiful stunning windows to the left of you, to the right of you, and surrounding the altar. Flying buttresses that hold up much of the ceiling make this effect possible. But it’s just stunning.
I won’t go into all the biblical stories and themes that are depicted in the glass and in the sculptures. One friend said that there are over a thousand bible stories to be found in the glass.
Much of what you see at Sainte-Chapelle is a reproduction of what was there. It was heavily damaged in the French Revolution. But what I’ve read is that the restorations were so lovingly and well done, that someone visiting from an earlier century would not notice much difference. It is indeed a jewel that travelers should not miss.
Visitors to the neighborhood around Notre Dame will see a few dozen odd metal structures all in lines along both sides of the Seine, but mainly on the left bank. These are rather odd bookstores that sell mainly used books, old magazines and newspapers, art prints (usually facsimiles) alongside the usual tourist junk you find many other places (Eiffel Tower key chains, etc.), and more contemporary art prints and post cards.
Sometimes they form the backdrop in some movie headquartered in Paris. I think you see them at least once in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. They’re frequently seen in paintings and lithographs that tourists buy when they come here. I don’t know where else you find these outside of Paris. They’re certainly very interesting and could consume hours of your time.
Wading through the many books that can be over a hundred years old (all probably in French), there are cellophane encased old magazines and newspapers that have really interesting art work. The art prints come from many sources and can be had for as little as 10 euros or as much as 100 euros or more.
Rick Steves tells you that Wednesdays are the day to be there, but when we arrived none were open! And even by the time we left, only six or eight had opened. The weather was fair, so that wasn’t a factor.
But we enjoyed seeing these things firsthand. We didn’t walk away with anything. Packing artwork in suitcases can sometimes be tricky, and because of the slim pickings of this particular Wednesday, we just weren’t finding anything that floated our boat.
To learn more about Sainte-Chapelle, click here.
Excellent movie about Sainte-Chapelle. click here.
To learn more about the Bouquinistes, click here.