Sainte-Chapelle: A “Two-Realmed” Cathedral

Perhaps most striking about the chapel at Sainte-Chappelle is that there are two of them, an “upper” and a “lower.”  Constructed and completed under King Louis IX’s orders, Sainte-Chappelle serves both as a fine example of Gothic style architecture as well as a church which represents an interesting history and architectural format.

As the website describes, “Sainte Chapelle could be considered a huge reliquary built to house the relics of the Crucifixion.  In 1239, Saint Louis bought the crown of thorns from Venetian merchants for 135,000 Pounds.”  Considering that the cost of the relics King Louis bought exceeded the price of the construction of the church, it is perhaps not such a misguided statement to say that the church was, indeed, a reliquary.  Certainly, despite the incredible cost of such relics, such high-profile items would have caught the eye of many pilgrims, and probably earned back their cost over time.  Nonetheless, the church of Sainte-Chapelle was not merely defined by its relics.  In fact, considering the incredible theological implications of the building as a house of worship with numerous stained-glass windows allowing the light to pour in, Sainte-Chapelle is barely defined by its relics.  Upon its consecration on April 26th, 1248, Sainte-Chapelle boasted a lower room where common worship services could be held as well as an upper room which aimed to draw crowds with its rich splendor.  Architecturally speaking, though beautiful, it is superseded by the upper room.  As Grant touched upon in his reflection, the juxtaposition of these two chapels lends itself to a striking effect when one goes from the “lower” to the “upper” level.  When one walks into the lower chapel, one is still nonetheless quite impressed.  Below, sky-scraping ceilings, highly-detailed work on the walls, tympanum, and stained glass make the lower chapel nothing to scoff at.  It was, after all, built “dedicated to parish services.”

Yet, the incredible adornments of the upper chapel – fleur de lis, brilliant colors, massive, light-granting stained glass – simply are at a whole new level.

It is interesting to note that while the ground was where the normal services would have been held, and where, during Communion, the transfiguration of Jesus into body and blood would occur by faith, it was the upper floor where relics or remnants of things that dealt with Jesus’ life were physically stored.  This idea is replete with Christian (and distinctly Dantean) notions of an earthly and a heavenly realm; the latter a place where a clearer and thereby more magnificent vision of God is available.  Therein lies the essence of the Gothic: a time period of art and architecture wherein the physical features of the church, a house of worship, reflect an artistic, spiritual expression of Christianity with incredible detail and beauty.

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