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Sainte-Chapelle: The Other Gothic Gem of the Île de la Cité

A photo of the nave and apse of Sainte-Chapelle and its stained glass windows.

I’ve written many times about my love for Notre Dame Cathedral. I have guided there for many years, and it is always at the top of my list of sights to see in Paris. I could talk for hours about that beautiful building, but I would be remiss in leading people to think that Notre Dame is the only church on the Île de la Cité. There is another, and it is just as beautiful and worthy of a visit. I’m talking, of course, about Sainte-Chapelle, the former royal chapel of Saint Louis.

Sainte-Chapelle is famous for a lot of things, but top of the list is its stained glass windows. The chapel was built in the 13th century, between 1242 and 1248, and contains 15 magnificent floor to ceiling stained glass windows in the upper chapel. The majority of these windows tell the stories of the Bible, but they also hold a more modern scene. At least, it was modern when Sainte-Chapelle was first built. I’ll explain, but first, a quick story.

A photo of the statue of Saint Louis in the lower chapel of Sainte-Chapelle.

Saint Louis, also known as King Louis IX, was a deeply pious man. In his lifetime, he was often modelled as the ideal Christian ruler. Neighbouring European monarchs would frequently ask him to arbitrate disputes due to his reputation for moral integrity. He lived a modest life, and would perform great acts of charity, including personally feeding the poor of Paris on a daily basis. He founded schools, hospitals, and houses for reformed prostitutes. And according to those close to him, he never said a bad word about anyone. To this day, he’s the only French king to be canonized a saint in the Catholic religion.

Which brings us back to the windows. In 1239, Louis held a week-long celebration to welcome over 30 recently-purchased Passion relics to Paris. These relics included a piece of the True Cross, a nail from the Passion, and the Crown of Thorns, considered to be one of the most important relics of the Christian religion. Louis commissioned the construction of Sainte-Chapelle specifically to house these relics, and they remained there until the French Revolution when they were moved to protect them from looters. The final window of Sainte-Chapelle depicts the relics’ arrival in Paris and their reception by Saint Louis. This served to connect the stories of the Bible to France’s most pious king. In all likelihood, exactly as he intended.

A photo of the nave of Sainte-Chapelle, taken from the side to show off more of the windows.

Today, the relics are stored in Notre Dame Cathedral, but Sainte-Chapelle should still be on everyone’s to-see list. The windows have retained most of their original stained glass, meaning they are the finest example of 13th century stained glass in the world. The modern scenes may not be quite so modern anymore, but that just makes it all the more extraordinary that they have survived for so long. Notre Dame is still years away from re-opening, so if you’re looking for another masterpiece of Gothic architecture on the Île de la Cité, Sainte-Chapelle has everything you’re looking for and more.

Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.


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