July 05, 2005

La Sainte Chapelle: Poetry in glass

Notre Dame's rose window gets all the attention, but stained glass junkies looking for an exquisite fix should head around the corner to La Sainte Chapelle, which, like Notre Dame, sits on the Ile de la Cite, ancient center of Paris.

Now surrounded by the Palais de Justice, Sainte Chapelle was built from 1246-1248 by Louis IX, France's "Crusader King," to house what Louis believed were pieces of Christ's cross and crown of thorns. The soaring gothic chapel has two levels. The lower chapel was built for the king's servants and contains impressive sculpture and woodwork, but it's the upper chapel that knocks your socks off. Adam climbed the staircase first, and, on entering the royal family's sanctuary, bathed in technicolor sunlight, let out a loud, laudatory "Wow!" The 13th-century windows start at the floor and keep going, and they embrace you on all sides. To stand in Sainte Chapelle on a brilliant afternoon is to indulge in an overwhelming visual feast.

Louis IX, who became Saint Louis, went on two crusades, which earned him the epithet "Most Christian King." In a letter to his oldest son, Philip, he offered advice on how to live and rule in a Christian manner. Pieces of his advice, including "...you should permit all your limbs to be hewn off, and suffer every manner of torment, rather than fall knowingly into mortal sin," sound like hilarious soundbites from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Other pieces (see article 32 -- very scary) are downright anti-Semitic, and certainly not very Christian.

But his windows are pure poetry.