The Architecture of the Sainte-Chapelle

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  • 1:24 Kingship and Religion
  • 2:18 The Floor Plan
  • 3:11 The Window Structure
  • 4:03 The Window Images
  • 4:51 Use of Color
  • 5:13 Lower Gallery
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

Sainte-Chapelle, known as the Jewelbox of Europe, is one of the most impressive collections of medieval stained glass in the world. Learn about this and other aspects of this famous French chapel.

The Sainte-Chapelle and its Relics

In the 13th century, the broke King Baldwin II of Constantinople pawned dozens of extremely holy items. King Louis IX of France, later canonized as St. Louis, purchased these objects for an extraordinary amount of money and brought them back to Paris.

Holy items such as these are known as relics. Relics are commonly the body parts of saints and objects that were once in the possession of saints. Louis's collection of relics included multiple Passion relics, which are relics associated with the death of Jesus Christ. These included:

  • The crown of thorns, which Jesus wore during his execution by crucifixion
  • A piece of the true cross on which Jesus died
  • A fragment of the lance that pierced Jesus's side while he was on the cross
  • Jesus's blood
  • Part of Jesus's burial shroud

Relics are contained in containers known as reliquaries. They are made out of finely carved wood, gold, silver, precious stones and other valuable materials to reflect the spiritual value of the relics themselves. At the Sainte-Chapelle, the relics were stored in a gold box known as the Grande Chasse.

Sometimes, these relics and reliquaries were given their own chapels, which are known as reliquary chapels. The Sainte-Chapelle, meaning 'holy chapel,' is an extraordinary example of such a building.

Connection Between Kingship and Religion

The building used to be part of the royal palace, which no longer exists. Today, it sits in the courtyard of the Palace of Justice, which contains France's law courts. Its integration with the palace allowed the king easy access to the chapel. It also visually represented the connection between kingship and religion.

In the 18th century, the French Revolution was particularly unkind to the Sainte-Chapelle:

  • Most of Louis's relics were lost. The surviving items, including the crown of thorns, are now stored at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
  • The Grande Chasse was melted down.
  • Many of the stained glass windows were destroyed. Despite this, the Sainte-Chapelle still possesses one of the largest surviving collections of medieval glass in Europe.
  • The outside of the building was heavily damaged, requiring extensive reconstruction.
  • The spire was dismantled. The current spire is a reconstruction.

The Floor Plan

Large Gothic churches were built in the form of a cross and had many different elements to them, which are discussed in another lesson. The Sainte-Chapelle floor plan, however, is comparatively simple, consisting only of a nave and apse. The nave is the rectangular body of the building, while the apse is a semi-circular structure at one end of the nave.

The Grande Chasse was positioned in the apse. Over it stood a canopy known as a baldachin. A baldachin is a canopy made of cloth, wood or stone installed over an important location such as a reliquary, altar or throne. The one shown here is a replica, as the original was destroyed in the French Revolution.

Replica of the baldachin at Saint-Chapelle
the baldachin at Saint-Chapelle

The chapel is also divided into upper and lower galleries. The upper gallery is where the relics were kept and where the king and his court would attend the chapel. There is also a smaller, lower gallery, where members of the household would attend.

The Window Structure

One of the major aspects of Gothic architecture was the use of stained glass. Colored pieces of glass were fit into metal frameworks to create both images and abstract patterns. The act of filling churches with beautiful, colored light represented the illuminating brightness of God. This aspect of Sainte-Chapelle's construction was so successful it became known as the Jewelbox of Europe.

Along the sides of the nave, each window is made up of four lancet windows, which are tall, thin windows, which help emphasize the height of the building. At the top of each window are three circular windows, two small and one larger.

At the West end of the chapel is a large rose window. Rose windows are circular windows that unfold from the center like a rose. This window was not originally part of the chapel but was added in the late 15th century.

An example of a rose window
Example of a rose window

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