Christus Rex: Christianity, Art and Politics in Sainte-Chappelle

When I first read about the history of the Sainte-Chapelle, I was under the impression that the political connection with Saint Louis (King Louis IX, 1217-1270) and the Capetian line indicated that Sainte-Chappell was more about political gain than the glorification of God. But in Christopher Blum’s article in the Logos journal, “Art and Politics in the Sainte-Chappelle of Paris,” I found a very different story. Apparently, it has often been speculated in the modern era that Saint Louis was religious because it helped his political image, or that he only used religion as a way to promote his politics. But as Blum shows, that is certainly not the case. The article itself is rather short, and it is definitely worth the read! I will recap a few of his points about Saint Louis, but then I will go on to talk about the theme of the Kingship of Christ in Sainte-Chapelle.

Saint Louis himself was a very devout man – he even pleaded with his wife and confessor that he might lay aside his kingship and become a monk. He was educated by Franciscans and Dominicans. He said mass three or four times daily, plus the canonical hours and the hours of the Holy Virgin. He was so passionate about the liturgy and the Sacrament of the Eucharist that he was often involved in selecting vestments, prayers and other elements of the mass. He also practices the mortification of his flesh – when he had bought the relics of the passion, the crown of thorns and the piece of the True Cross, Saint Louis carried them on his shoulders and barefooted, brought them to their home in Sainte-Chapelle.

But to get to the point of this reflection- Saint Louis was a great proponent of the doctrine of the Kingship of Christ which was gaining prominence in the thirteenth century. The sermons on Christ’s Kingship which would have often been preached in Sainte-Chapelle taught that the central mystery of the Christian faith was in God’s Incarnation for our salvation, that Christ would lay aside the powers of His Kingship to save us. In this way, the model of kingship we find in Christ is servanthood – and this is how Saint Louis saw his kingship: as no more than an act of service.

The message of Christ’s Kingship is the central message of the Sainte-Chappelle. Indeed, Saint Louis dedicated the Sainte-Chappelle as the New Temple of the True Solomon, and saw the chapel as an image of the heavenly court. But now to examine the story of the windows…

The window series of Sainte-Chappelle works as a visual liturgy (liturgia – for the people). On the north wall, we have a series that tells the story of Israel and its preservation of right worship and the guard against idolatry. Here, just as in the liturgy that would have been spoken, the visual liturgy tells of the Old Testament as a preparation for Christ. Then the images of Judith, Ester, Tobit and Job on the south wall shows how Christ rules over us in providence. The apse, opposite the great rosace of the Apocalypse, is shows the beginning to the end with Christ at the center, beginning with Genesis, facing the Apocalypse, and featuring the passion at its middle. At the very midpoint of the passion window, Christ is seated with his crown of thorns, being whipped and tortured, reminding us that he laid aside his Heavenly crown to take upon him the burden of our sin represented in His crown of thorns. Thus, these windows act as a visual liturgy that draws the beholder into the story of Christ the King’s advent, His continuing rule, His example for earthly rulers, and his future coming.

In the Sainte-Chappelle, Saint Louis glorifies Christ’s Kingship, and not his own. He seeks to be an imitator of Christ in his servanthood kingship, not a competitor. Thus, in Sainte-Chappelle, we find a culture that flourishes at the nexus of art, politics and Christianity.

CS

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