Sainte-Chapelle of Paris, gem of high gothic architecture, cost more than the annual income of the French royal estate to build and furnish. While construction totalled 40,000 livres, the relics it was built to house cost almost six times that.
If you’ve ever possessed a fortune large enough to spend a lot of it, you’ll know the sinking feeling that comes when you realise you probably won’t get your money’s worth. For example, I once spent a month’s salary on a figurehead salvaged from the prow of a very famous pirate ship. I made this purchase because I believed it would bring my companion and I good luck on a perilous voyage of our own. Needless to say, it was one of the first things cut loose when our boat started taking on water – a decision which did nothing to ease my own sinking feeling.
A sinking feeling no doubt familiar to the French royal family. Because little more than 100 years after its completion in 1248, Sainte-Chapelle and the surrounding palace were abandoned. I went to see this gothic gem for myself.
Expensive and imposing, Sainte-Chapelle is unmistakably gothic
On a grey afternoon in Paris, Sainte-Chapelle looked anything but abandoned. A smattering of tourists snapped quick photos as they passed the cheap side of gilded courthouse gates. Many were likely only on the Île de la Cité to admire nearby Notre-Dame. But under a discreet sign, those in the know formed two thick lines to enter Sainte-Chapelle.
The view from the street was close to the same as it’s been for hundreds of years. The stained glass windows of the chapel rose like the dawn. The spire teetered over the buildings that once made up the Palais de la Cité. Sainte-Chapelle was certainly gothic – imposing, expensive, excessive. But abandoned?
Geographical centre of Paris and gem of gothic architecture
The Île de la Cité, where the Palais de la Cité and Sainte-Chapelle would eventually be built, played a central role in the city of Paris from as early as the days of the Romans. The island wasn’t just an essential junction through the city but the main stronghold against barbarian attacks. But by 1190, Paris had grown to a point where one stronghold was no longer enough.
King Philippe, known as Philippe Auguste and first monarch to style himself as King of France, responded. Overseeing the construction of a wall surrounding the city and the fortified castle of the Louvre, he reasserted Île de la Cité as the geographical centre of Paris.
From 1240, his grandson Louis IX – later Saint Louis – made the project his own. He enlarged the Palais de la Cité, built the gothic Sainte-Chapelle and acquired the holy relics. He reappointed the palace, which also included the Conciergerie, as primary residence and seat of royal power. And so it was until the 14th century, when a series of assassinations forced King Charles V to abandon it for more secure habitations.
Inside the upper and lower chapels
Inside the upper chapel, scenes of heroism, martyrdom and violence raised my view more than 20 metres to the vaulted ceiling. The windows, most of them original and dominated by red and blue, stained the grey sunlight purple. At the far end once stood the shrine containing 22 relics of the Passion of Christ – including a fragment of the Holy Cross and the Crown of Thorns.
Downstairs, visitors raced to buy bookmarks and magnets. Some missed the very real remains of a previous iteration of the roof. Displayed at the far end of the room, these were recovered during one of many waves of restoration made necessary by fires and floods in the 1600s – and later, most significantly, the French Revolution.
As a symbol of royal authority, Sainte-Chapelle suffered significant damage at the end of the 18th century. Revolutionaries pulled its spire down and scattered many of its furnishings. In the hands of the people, however, Sainte-Chapelle found life again – as a flour warehouse then a courthouse archive depot. Now, it’s carefully preserved as one of Paris’s most beautiful examples of gothic architecture.
Recovering the abandoned palace of Sainte-Chapelle
It’s often uncomfortable to abandon something into which you’ve invested time and money – be it the grand gothic Sainte-Chapelle, an ineffective nautical ornament or the sinking ship on which remains the companion with whom you’d hoped to cross the ocean.
But if the French royal family was quick to abandon the Sainte-Chapelle, the people weren’t. From 1846 onwards, champions including Victor Hugo made possible huge waves of restoration work. Projects continue to this day.