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Now, churches in Europe are a dime a dozen. They are everywhere! I enjoy visiting them at a start of a trip but after a few weeks, I get tired of them. They all start to look the same and blend together in my memories. But I still feel like I have to at least peek inside.
So, before I committed to adding another church onto our list of things to see, I did a quick Google search of Sainte-Chapelle. Once I looked at the images that came up I was 100% sold!
Sainte-Chapelle, without a doubt, lives up to it’s nickname of the “jewel box” church. Almost the entire church is made out of stained-glass, the stone walls doing little more than serving as framework for the delicate glass. The interior is mesmerizing, bathed in light and colour. Pinks, purples and blues glisten beautifully as the sunlight shines through the intricate designs.
History of Sainte-Chapelle
Sainte-Chapelle was built between 1242- 1248 in the courtyard of the Palais de la Cite, a former royal palace that is now part of the Palace of Justice (law courts).
King Louis the IX (future Saint Louis) had the chapel built to house his collection of relics of Christ, which at the time included the Image of Edessa and the Crown of Thorns, then later the Holy Lance and fragments of the True Cross. It’s believed that King Louis purchased the Crown of Thorns (now in Notre-Dame Cathedral) in 1239 for a price that far exceeded the cost of building the chapel.
During the French revolution, Sainte-Chapelle suffered a great deal of damage by vandals. They tore down the spire, smashed royal emblems and sculptures on the portals, and melted down reliquaries for the metal. Luckily, the stained glass windows remained largely intact (two-thirds are authentic). Restorations are ongoing and have been taking place since 1846.
Today Sainte-Chapelle, along with the neighbouring Conciergerie, are the only remains of the oldest palace of the kings of France.
Our Tour of Sainte-Chapelle- Two Chapels in One
I was a bit bewildered when I entered the lower chapel because it was not like what I had seen in pictures at all. There were no stained glass windows filling both sides of the chapel, like I was expecting. I was really confused and was starting to think we were in the wrong place.
Turns out there are two levels to Sainte-Chapelle. The lower level was the place of worship for the palace staff. The upper level was where the relics were displayed and was strictly for the King and his close friends and family.
There is a small, unmarked stairway tucked in a corner near the entrance that leads you up to the main chapel.
The Lower Chapel
At the portal of the lower chapel you will be greeted by a statue of the sanctuary’s patron saint, the Virgin Mary. Walking into the chapel, golden fleurs-de-lis shimmer above on an azure coloured low vault. Looking towards the apse, you will see the oldest wall painting in Paris- a 13th century fresco of the Annunciation.
One of the most striking design elements of Sainte-Chapelle’s lower chapel are the gilded buttresses that reinforce the ceiling vaults. They’re so elegant and majestic that I could not take my eyes off them as we walked down the central aisle.
Another beautiful feature is the alternating red and blue columns and their capitals. Floral designs and the castle emblem of Queen Blanche of Castile (Louis IX’s mother) grace the columns which are topped by golden, sculpted acanthus leaves.
The lower chapel also has stained glass windows, but they’re much smaller than those that frame the upper chapel. Unfortunately, the original glass was destroyed in 1690 by a flood. The stained glass currently in the lower chapel was designed in the 19th century and depicts scenes from Virgin Mary’s life.
The final notable element of the lower chapel is the small statue of Louis IX.
The Upper Chapel and Sainte-Chapelle’s Stained Glass Windows
The gem of Sainte-Chapelle is the upper chapel and its stained glass windows. The beauty is remarkable! Even though I only got to see half of the chapel due to one side being covered up for restoration work, it still was awe-inspiring.
The upper chapel consists of 15 stained glass windows, each 15 metres high, that tell the stories of the bible from Genesis to Christ’s resurrection. There are 1,113 scenes depicted on the windows which span nearly the entirety of three walls of the chapel.
Fourteen of the stained glass windows in Sainte-Chapelle should be read from left to right, bottom to top. The only window to be read boustrophedonically (alternating from right to left and left to right) is the one telling the history of the relics of the Passion.
In between the windows along the nave are statues of the 12 apostles. Five of the statues are original, including the one of St. Peter holding the keys to heaven.
Another notable stained glass window in Sainte-Chapelle is the western rose. It depicts the Apocalypse of St. John, with Christ in the centre returning at the end of Time to judge the dead and the living.
As intricate as the artwork was, my favourite part of Sainte-Chapelle was the colours used to stain the glass. The purples and pinks were so rich and regal, definitely fit for a king!
Final Thoughts About Visiting Sainte-Chapelle
I’ve visited a lot of churches on my travels and very few stood out the way Sainte-Chapelle did. Long after my visit, I could still vividly picture the inside of the upper chapel and its glittering stained glass windows. In addition to Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle is one church you should not miss out on visiting if it’s your first time in Paris.
More Interesting Facts About Sainte-Chapelle
- Sainte-Chapelle was built during the Rayonnant phase of Gothic architecture, a period characterized by refined decoration, large windows, and spatial unity. The chapel has one of the world’s most extensive 13th-century stained glass collections and is considered among the highest achievements of Rayonnant Gothic architecture.
- Archives don’t name the designer-builder responsible for the chapel’s construction, but it’s believed the design was inspired by Charlemagne’s royal chapel at his palace in Aix-en-Chapelle (now Aachen).
- The current spire is the fifth to be built at Sainte-Chapelle since the 13th century.
- During the revolution, the chapel was turned into a storehouse for grain.
- During World War II, the stained glass was removed and placed into storage for safety.
- Sainte-Chapelle was secularized after the French Revolution and was classified as a historical monument in 1862.
Tips for Visiting Sainte-Chapelle
Location: Sainte-Chapelle is part of the larger Palais de Justice, which also contains the Conciergerie. You can find the entrance on Boulevard du Palais on the Ile de la Cite.
Opening Hours: Sainte-Chapelle opens at 9:00 am. Closing time is 7:00 pm (April 1- September 30) and 5:00 pm the rest of the year. Last admission is 40 minutes before closing.
- Sainte-Chapelle is closed on January 1, May 1, and December 25.
Admission Tickets: You must purchase an entry ticket and reserve a time-slot to visit Sainte-Chapelle (can be done online). Admission is €11.50 for adults and free for minors under 18. If you have a Paris Museum Pass admission is free. Here is a trusted site where you can buy digital tickets and have them immediately delivered to your smartphone (no need to print):
Tours: For self-guided tours of Sainte-Chapelle, audio guides are available for rent in English, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese.
- You may also want to download the “Sainte-Chapelle Windows” app to learn more about the stained glass windows.
Security: Security is tight and you will have to put your bags through an x-ray machine like at the airport.
Area Accommodations: To search for hotels near Sainte-Chapelle, please visit Booking.com, our trusted booking site that we use for all our trips.
Information was updated January 2022, but can change without notice. Please confirm directly with the venue.