Last year I was able to visit Sainte-Chapelle. The visit was not a planned pilgrimage. It may have even been a spontaneous detour – I think my family had come to see the Musée de la Conciergerie and decided to see the nearby Sainte-Chapelle while we were in the neighborhood on a whim. Restorations were occurring, so we entered the lower chapel without much thought. Or any knowledge that there was an upper chapel. I remember thinking that it was very nice, but not particularly impressive. The few windows (and bustling crowd) did not grant the observer any sense of awe-inspiring sanctity as I had expected. We were about to leave, unaware of the chapel above us (or perhaps thinking it was closed for renovations), when I saw some people head through a small door near the back and up a narrow staircase. Curious, I led the way. A tight and winding stone staircase spiraled up to the upper chapel. The curve of the staircase (and my ignorance) made this sudden emergence into the light-filled chapel a quite literally breath-taking experience. I don’t know if this is the conventional way to enter the upper chapel, but it is one of my favorite imaginable ways. Ascent leading to surprise.
While the lower chapel has a sense of closeness and seems almost cellar-like, the upper chapel is a tall open space filed with light. The 15 stained glass windows (some of which were covered for restoration, including the rose window I think) surround the observer in light. “Observer” almost ceases to be the right term for one isn’t drawn to look at the light but instead seems almost to participate in it. At the very least you’re immersed in it. Not only does colored light surround you, but so do images of the kings of Israel, Esther, Judith, Job, Jeremy, Tobie, John the Baptist, depictions of Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, and the time of the Judges. The observer is not only participating in the light, but the surrounding communion of legendary saints gives the nearly undeniable sense that you are participating in this same history. The history of Moses is your history as well. You are both surrounded by and driven forward by it.
This sense is not accidental, I think. As Sainte-Chapelle housed the relics of the Crucifixion, the history of the windows crosses from window to world. The images focus on a window of The Passion. The biblical history windows – former realities depicted – point towards the Incarnation and Passion of Christ, the relics of The Passion are present in the space. The physical relics and stain glass depictions draw the thirteenth century Sainte-Chapelle-goer into the present ramifications on their life of these events.