Sainte-Chapelle

Regular readers of this blog (listen to the self importance!) may be aware of my penchant for religious buildings, even when the faiths they practice give me the shits. I’ve already written about Saint Eustache here and I’m sure that’s just part of an occasional series of musings on holy buildings yet to come, you lucky fornicators!

Last night we took in Saint-Chapelle, on the Ille-de-la-Cité, a tiny island located within the Seine. Its most famous landmark by far is Notre Dame, but lesser known contemporarily is the dazzling gothic Sainte-Chapelle édifice religieux, built between 1242 and 1248. That’s not to say it was always a well kept secret – there was a time where Sainte-Chapelle was regarded as the centrepiece for Europe’s own “New Jerusalem” – and hence regarded as the second capital of Christianity. So a bit like a religious Birmingham.

One of the reasons was its magnificent stained-glass windows, which depict books from the Bible, almost in the form that comics now come in. Indeed the window telling the story of the relics of the Passion of Christ can be read boustrophedonically, and I bet you never thought you’d see that word outside of a Will Self novel. Genesis, Exodus and Numbers are represented, though one presumes Leviticus and Deuteronomy were a bit too dry to bother scripting (Deuteronomy 23 states: “If there is among you a man who is unclean because of a nocturnal emission, he shall go outside the camp”).

The prophets are represented by Isaiah alone on the left hand side wall and then we make the leap to the New Testament for the Passion and John the Baptist. As a (very) lapsed protestant I can only surmise that “the Passion” is a catholic thing by the way, and I’m sure they’re doing their best to claw it back after blockbusting anti-Semite Mel Gibson picked it up and ran with the thing.
sainte-chapelleapostletriptychparquet
Then we get to the next wall and the stained glass window makers must have thought – “hang about, we’ve got loads of room left”, because then books seem to come at you randomly and out of sequence. More prophets! (Jeremiah and Ezekiel!) Books unrecognised by the Reformationists and everyone who followed them subsequently! (Tobias and Judith?) Esther for some reason next to Kings? Another bit about the Passion and then the pièce de résistance, The Apocalypse. This window is definitely the most magnificent and, well, revelatory, or at least it would be if there was any light pouring through it. With little forethought we decided to visit at night, and nobody really bothered warning us that the spectacle is greatly reduced without natural daylight coming through the windows. They still managed to charge us full price, but then that’s the Catholic Church for you.

The other reason Sainte-Chapelle was so world renowned was because it was believed to hold the relics of the Passion, with its, ahem, crowning glory believed to be the actual crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head when he was crucified. Bought by French Royalty in the 4th century from the emperors of Constantinople for a fee that far exceeded the amount it cost to build the church itself, the provenance of the relic has not been determined, but then Christian’s would never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

The crown fragments now apparently live under lock and key at Notre Dame, and have done so since the French Revolution when much of Sainte-Chapelle was destroyed. Lots of it has been restored, and actually there’s a large section of the Upper Chapel undergoing restoration right now. It was another thing we weren’t warned about and another inconvenience that didn’t seem to affect the price. I would advise putting off a visit until next year if you want to check it out, because actually, about three of the windows are obscured by a massive screen concealing scaffolding.

Thought for the day: It’s a shame when great works of art are destroyed in human conflict, even when the insurgents have righteousness on their side. I was reading the other day about how the Nazis destroyed some of Klimt’s finest works in a fire because they didn’t want the Allies getting their hands on them. Fucking Nazis.

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