The Holy Chapel, a gothic pearl in Paris

Inside the lower chapel of the Saint-Chapelle in Paris.

The gorgeous Holy Chapel, or as it is known in French La Saint-Chapelle, was built in the Middle Ages, following the orders of Louis IX, who was commonly known as Saint Louis. The chapel was built in the middle of the Cité Island, in the courtyard of the royal castle. It was conceived not only as a place of conversion with God, but also as a repository of relics. Its decoration strikes with sophistication and richness, as can be seen in old frescoes and its beautiful stained-glass windows. Continue reading, to learn more about this truly magnificent sight.

The history of the Holy Chapel

At the beginning of the 13th century, the crusaders set off on one of the many campaigns to Jerusalem. On the way, they did not disregard the magnificent and rich city of Constantinople. Their plundering left the once great Byzantine Empire nearly depleted, and a much weaker Latin Empire was formed in its place. In order to improve his financial situation, their emperor decided to start selling Christian relics inherited from his predecessors. The –°rown of thorns was one of these “goods”.

The situation attracted the attention of Louis IX, the King of France, as owning such priceless relics could certainly make him a unique ruler – in his view, he would even be crowned by the power of God himself. After some short bidding, Louis got his hands on the Crown for the shocking amount of 137 thousand livres in 1239.

The French annals describe the moment of arrival of the sacred relics in France. They tell how Louis IX set off to meet his spiritual treasures barefoot, putting on a shirt of crude material, leading a solemn procession under the glee of the people. Besides this great artefact, King Louis IX also bought other items related to the Passion of the Christ in 1241. Among them, a fragment of the Holy Cross with nails and the Lance of Longinus.

The magnificent gothic spire of the Holy Chapel towering above the surrounding buildings.
The magnificent gothic spire of the Holy Chapel towering above the surrounding buildings.

Following the example of the emperors from the East, the French King decided to build a monument to store his Christian treasures – and here the idea of building a reliquary chapel was born. The Saint-Chapelle was built in a very short amount of time, lasting only from 1242 to 1248. Historians have not been able to find out the exact date of its founding, but the date of the consecration is known for certain – April 26, 1248. By the way, the construction of the temple cost only 40 thousand livres, which is several times less than the cost of the holy relic itself.

The architecture of the Holy Chapel

As the Saint-Chapelle was basically meant to become a kind of treasure box for the King, it didn’t need to be that spacious. And indeed, its dimensions cannot be called particularly spectacular for the standards of Paris: 17 meters wide at a length of 36 meters, and a height of 42.5 meters.

The two-story Saint-Chapelle, is divided into a lower and an upper chapel. Both are of an equal surface, with a single nave adjacent to a seven-sided apse. Not only the decoration of the chapels differs greatly, but also their height – 7 versus 20 meters.

The lower chapel was consecrated in honour of the Virgin Mary, and was initially mostly visited by palace servants. The upper level was intended for persons of royal blood and higher nobility – this chapel was consecrated in honour of the Holy Cross. And it was here, in the upper chapel, on an openwork pedestal placed deep inside the apse, where one could admire the Crown of thorns, stained with the blood of Christ.

The roof of the Saint-Chapelle is crowned with a cedar spire, which rises 33 meters into the sky – the spire that we can see today dates from the 19th century, and is already the fifth copy of the original one from the 15th century.

The breathtaking stained-glass windows inside the Holy Chapel.
The breathtaking stained-glass windows inside the Holy Chapel.

Travellers appearing at the entrance of the Holy Chapel for the first time, often get a feeling of gloom, however, once inside, this mood swiftly disappears. The chapel is generously decorated with bright paintings with dominant red, blue and golden colours. Among them are royal lilies, emblems of Blanche of Castile (the mother of Louis IX) and enamel medallions with images of the twelve apostles. Where the walls are not filled with paintings, they are decorated with stucco and sculptures.

Of course, the most memorable part of the entire building is the upper chapel with its magnificent stained-glass windows, occupying an area of over 600 square meters. They depict more than 1,134 biblical and religious stories. More than 700 of them have survived from the 13th century to the present day in their original form. The central stained-glass windows are dedicated to Christ, John the Baptist and John the Apostle. On others, you can see various scenes from the Old Testament.

During the French Revolution, the Saint-Chapelle was badly damaged, because it was seen as a symbol of royal power. Furniture, organs, and even the spire were destroyed. Relics were looted or got lost, and the building itself was turned into a warehouse. The restoration process started thirty years later, with specialists still puzzling today to bring all the details back in the original form.

The Holy Chapel is located on the territory of the Palace of Justice, with the entrance just left of the monumental gate.
The Holy Chapel is located on the territory of the Palace of Justice, with the entrance just left of the monumental gate.

How to visit the Holy Chapel?

The Holy Chapel is located in the very heart of Paris, on the Île de la Cité. The metro station of Cité is only a stone's throw away from the Holy Chapel. Visiting the chapel is possible from 9-17h from October to March, and from 9-19h from April to September. A valid ticket for entrance is required.

What else to do near the Holy Chapel?

Finding yourself in the very centre of Paris means that you'll have plenty of great places at walking distance. Have a look at the unparalleled renovation works of the Notre-Dame, head south for a peek into the famous bookstore of Shakespeare and Company or wander through the charming area of Saint-Germain-des-Prés amidst some of the trendiest boutiques of Paris. Or head northwards, to have a lovely coffee break in Le Marais before visiting Centre Pompidou. Paris simply has an overwhelming number of great options for any taste. Keep the overview of the very best of Paris with our Streetwise map.

It is no secret that Paris is a storehouse of magnificent palaces, churches, pleasant streets and beautiful architecture. Nevertheless, in between your visits to all this beauty, don't forget to sit down a moment and breathe the atmosphere of the city of love. Ever heard of legendary cafés like Les Deux Magots or Le Polidor? Where to find such great places? You can easily find the spot of your dreams with our guide of the best literary cafés in Paris.

We wish you a pleasant time in one of the most beautiful cities in the world!

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