I can’t remember a trip to Paris that did not include a visit to La Sainte-Chapelle. I have heard so many Vivaldi Four Seasons concerts here that I’ve lost count.
Those concerts are certainly an excellent way to admire this magnificent chapel. If nothing else, everyone is seated, and if you are at the back, no one will notice you focussing on the beautiful stained glass windows instead of the concert.
There is a downside to this, though. You have to pay a premium above the regular entrance fee, and those seats are so, so hard. At least our visit this year, sans Vivaldi, was not marred by scaffolding, which had been in place since 2008.
Ruth has been going to La Sainte-Chapelle since the early seventies when there were no tourists, no queues, no selfie sticks and no security. Then, it was free. Then you could photograph with a tripod. But, it was hard to find. Buried behind the Palais de Justice, it was the hidden gem of Paris. It hadn’t even found its way into the guide books.
To be alone with such majesty is hard to fathom. To remain unmoved by six hundred square metres of stained glass, arranged across 15 windows, each 15 meters high, portraying 1,113 biblical scenes is impossible.
This unique masterpiece is much less visited than its neighbour Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. More private and more discreet, La Sainte-Chapelle was never intended to be open to the public.
To take full advantage of La Sainte-Chapelle, you must go during the day and if possible when the sun is shining. The transmitted light offers a kaleidoscope of saturated colours.
La Sainte-Chapelle is made up of two levels. The lower level, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was accessible to the palace personnel. The upper level, dedicated to the Holy Cross, was principally reserved for the King and his family. This arrangement reflected the place of the sovereign in the organisation of the world, halfway between the people on earth and God in heaven.
Today, entrance is on the lower level with its ubiquitous souvenir shop, and access to the upper level and the majestic stained glass windows is via a claustrophobic spiral staircase. In these windows, the biblical story unfolds from Creation to the Apocalypse.
King Louis IX, better known as Saint Louis, erected La Sainte-Chapelle between 1242 and 1248. It is somewhat of a myth that the King built the chapel primarily to house holy relics. The first charter of La Sainte-Chapelle (January 1246) makes clear that it was founded first and foremost to save the souls of all the members of the royal family, both the King’s predecessors and his entourage. Only then are mentioned the relics of the Passion, the Crown of Thorns and the Cross in particular.
King Louis IX had purchased these religious relics in 1239 from a Venetian merchant who had acquired them from the Byzantine emperor, Baldwin II, at a time when the emperor needed to cover some debts. In fact, Louis paid almost three times more for the relics than he did for the construction of La Sainte-Chapelle. Two years later, he bought more relics from Byzantium. Today, what remains of the relics are housed in the nearby Treasury House of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.
That La Sainte-Chapelle is still standing today is itself a miracle. It has suffered several fires (1630, 1776) and the flood of 1690. The French Revolution did not spare it either with exterior and interior decorations destroyed; the spire knocked down, the organ sent to Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois and the inside converted into administrative offices and an archive storage depot. It did not return to its former glory until 1868, after 30 years of restoration.
La Sainte-Chapelle escaped significant damage during the Seige of Paris (1870-1871), but the Palais de Justice was burnt to the ground. To avoid damage from bombing during World War I and II the windows were removed and stored for safekeeping. The most recent restoration began in 2008 and finished in 2015 to mark the 800th anniversary of the birth of King Louis IX.
The Royal Palace has long since disappeared and La Sainte-Chapelle, which attracts more than 900,000 visitors a year, is now surrounded by the Palais de Justice. Security is very strict. You will be mixing it with the legal fraternity and hundreds of court attendees. Leave your knives, tripods and selfie sticks at home. A bag check occurs at the entrance to the Palais de Justice. Then a short walk (just follow the crowds) to the ticket office at La Sainte-Chapelle. To avoid the ticket queues, visit the Conciergerie next door first (where Marie Antoinette was held before losing her head), and purchase a joint ticket or get a museum pass. If you feel like a meal before or after Vivaldi, the brasserie across the road is not bad.
If you would like to prepare for your visit, download the phone application Vitraux Sainte-Chapelle and explore the mysteries of the windows of the monument built by Saint Louis.
4, boulevard du Palais, 75001 Paris
33 1 53 40 60 80
Open every day 9:30 am – 6:00 pm (Apr 1 – Oct. 31); 9:00 am – 5:00 pm ( Nov 1 – Mar 31) No access between 1:00 pm – 14:15 pm (Mon – Fri).
Métro: line 4, station Cité. RER: Saint Michel-Notre Dame. Buses: lines 21, 27, 38, 85, 96 and Balabus.