Sainte Chapelle is the most beautiful building on Paris’ Île de la Cité. And for an island that’s home to the spectacular Notre Dame cathedral, that’s saying something.
And it’s actually just around the corner. Not exactly off the beaten track, but it does receive significantly fewer visitors than Notre Dame – perhaps because Disney have never made a film about it. But I expect it’s mainly because it’s small, unremarkable from the outside, and tucked away at the side of La Concierge.
In fact, it might be the chapel’s unassuming size that has contributed to its preservation.
When you enter the chapel, you’re greeted by stunning medieval paintwork in deep reds and blues. Look up, and there’s a guilded vaulted ceiling, fretted with golden stars. As if this weren’t magical enough, the chapel’s tiny windows and low ceiling make you feel as though you’re underground.
But overhead is something far more exciting than rock.
Go up the plain, unremarkable stone spiral staircase at the back of the chapel, and you emerge into the upper chapel.
If the lower chapel feels confined and underground, the upper chapel is so light and high-ceilinged that it feels as though it’s floating. But what really makes you catch your breath is the stained glass: beautifully intricate windows soaring skywards around three sides of the chapel. There’s a feeling of calm, with the light drifing through the jewel-like glass.
Paris is a city shaped by violence. Aside from the more recent violence, there was the German occupation of the city during the Second World War, and before that the seige of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war. But perhaps most famously, the city was rocked by the French revolution in the late 18th century, in an overturning of authority so violent that it became known as the Terror.
The French Revolution quite literally rearranged the city. All of the beautiful wide tree-lined boulevards that make the place feel so quintessentially Parisian were in fact deliberately rebuilt that way, to make them too wide to barricade in a future revolution. It’s a city quite literally shaped by a memory of bloodhsed.
Although some damage to Sainte Chapelle was done during the French Revolution, fantastic restoration has been done. And two thirds of the stained glass in the chapel is still original, dating from 1248.
I’m just going to take a moment to let that sink in. Stained glass from 1248. Glass that’s nearly 800 years old.
It’s a beautiful building, and one that doesn’t get nearly the coverage that it deserves.