Living in the modern world, it’s easy to forget the walls of glass that surround us are difficult.
In many ways, unfathomable.
As I walk by the John Hancock tower and stare at the immense glassiness of the façade, I am taken aback (and this is everyday; you would think I would get used to it). It’s easy to stop looking and let the glassiness of the world blend away. It’s easy to focus more on where you want to go, then what you pass by.
But I assure you that if the carpenter or masons of the 1100s ever walked my way to work, they would be dumbfounded.
Gothic architecture changed the possibilities of building and in some very odd and distant way contributed to the Hancock tower. Gothic architecture bridged a gap. By relying on a series of arches that allow the walls to carry no weight, the possibilities of the walls become endless. You can insert windows. You can insert more windows. You can pretty much make the entire bay window. And better yet! Let’s stick the supports outside so they don’t muddy up the interior.
In Paris, there is no shortage of gothic architecture. But inside, many are still dark. They hold on to a remnant of the medieval past, and do not truly feel bright or even light.
Not far from the beaten path (and with the tourists to prove it), there stands a gem that holds more sway than Notre Dame (at least in my opinion). It’s not as grand in size, but it deftly fulfills the goals of Gothic Architecture. I would be amiss to claim that the impetus behind this church was solely religious; it was also political.
At this time in Europe, kings strived to assert their divine right to rule. They wanted to emphasize to the people their godliness, as well as their supreme authority. King Louis IX was no different. After purchasing the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the True Cross for an enormous sum (like really enormous), he set about to create the Sainte-Chapelle as both a reliquary and a true expression of his divine right.
King Louis IX, more than most of his counterparts, would spend most of his life involved in spiritual pursuits. Part of this was spurred on by a vow made after being miraculously cured from a serious illness. Driven either by this or just his religion in itself he built the Sainte Chappelle for the Crown of Thorns and launched series of crusades, in both 1248 and 1270. He was known throughout his reign, perhaps due to his mother’s influence, for being a patron to arts and architecture. He was well regarded and the other kings of Europe would praise him for being a good Christian prince. Today, he is even a saint. It is because of him, that we have the Sainte Chapelle.
Spending ¼ of what he spent for the relics themselves on the building (a 1/4!), he designed a personal chapel solely for his own, his friends’ and his family’s use. The lower portion, which is more humble and much more gloomy, was designed primarily for the king’s servants (so there was a little largesse happening here). There are two things interesting about these facts. First, he spent an enormous amount of money on the Crown of Thorns and by doing so made Paris a religious destination. Second, he bothered to construct the lower floors for more public access. While not unheard of, this was definitely not necessary.
The chapel itself was built in only six years, which in itself is astounding. Right next door, Notre Dame took over a hundred years of construction. Eventually during the revolution, the relics originally housed at the Sainte Chapelle would be moved to Notre Dame for protection.
Since the general populace had no access to the chapel, unlike St. Denis and Notre Dame, the outside expression was even more paramount. Gables, alternating with pinnacles, form a crown-like shape that could be seen from anywhere in medieval Paris. Both its stature in the city skyline and its form express the king’s divine right and also what is housed inside.
But the outside cannot truly do justice to the interior.
The Sainte Chapelle takes you on a journey. Entering by way of the lower floor, you wind your way through the dark, lower level that holds on to that cathedral gloom. You have seen this, you have been in this, you have experienced this in almost every other old church. But then you climb. You climb the stairs, and if your stars are right, you emerge semi-alone, into the light. (Bear in mind there used to be a bridge so the king and his friends would never have to inhabit the lower floor. He was always in the light.)
Unlike most gothic churches, the Sainte Chapelle gets rid of the tripartite practice of dividing the walls into an arcade, triforium and clerestory. Instead, the whole height of wall is turned into glass, there is only one division. Where the glass would traditionally be found at the lower level, this chapel instead has a blind arcade. This serves to direct all gaze up. Fitting with its Rayonnant style (literally meaning “to radiate”), the chapel is sumptuously decorated. Also, alike to the style, the glass panel windows have lost their stone divisions and the tracery has become thinner.
The seeming fragility of the structure only seems to emphasize the sheer 6,400 sq ft of stained glass that surrounds you. Relying on buttresses and rather large columns (cleverly disguised as 9 small ones), the outer walls are almost entirely glass.
The stained glass windows also reemphasize the King’s spiritual claim. In some, Saint Louis holds the relics and associates himself to the famous kings of Israel (of which the king of France is now linked making his heirs, heirs to the kingdom of Israel). Allusions to royalty abound. Heraldic themes (castles of Castille in deference to his mother Blanche), coronation scenes, and even Louis IX is shown wearing Christ’s Crown.
The chapel was damaged heavily in the French Revolution, but years of painstaking restoration have restored much of its beauty. Although the restoration of parts is somewhat debated, what we are left with today is still astounding. It is definitely worth a visit if you ever happen to find yourself in Paris, and even better if it’s on an off-time when you can be in there with a much smaller crowd.
I can still recall the moment on a fateful day in Spring 2009 that a friend and I found ourselves practically alone in the Sainte Chapelle. The sun was shining, the windows singing and I stood there in complete awe at the wonder of a building that could literally make you feel like you were one among jewels.