On a rather cold afternoon, we arrived at the stately gates that lead to the Palais de Justice and proceeded to join a small group at the Cour de la Sainte-Chapelle. After showing our Paris Visites, we moved right into the lower chapel, which was for the servants of the palace that the holy chapel was a part of when King and Saint Louis IX had it constructed to hold the pricey but priceless Crown of Thorns he had bought from the Byzantine emperor Beaudoin II, as well as other relics of Christ’s Passion he had assiduously acquired. Up the steep spiral staircase, we went to the glorious upper chapel, realm of the royals and clergy exclusively.
Overwhelming, even on a sunless afternoon, the 15 stained-glass panels before us seemed seamlessly to stretch out in colorful glory, a biblical re-telling in glass. Its rose window sufficiently shines amid glittering arches and columns above elaborately patterned floors. Moving our eyes clockwise from Genesis on our left and ending with the Apocalypse of the rose window on our right, the windows literally dominate the chapel. A stunning achievement of French Gothic, exceptionally unified in design since it was completed so quickly (1246-1248), the chapel has windows composed into a mass of glorious color created with craftsmanship akin to that of Chartres Cathedral, but existing in much less space.
Fortunately or not, a tall cloaked woman approached us and several others, and, after briefly introducing herself and her credentials as a candidate for a doctorate in French history, began to talk about Louis’s reasons for obtaining the Passion relics and building so speedily to enclose them. Politically feeling a need to justify his legitimacy (as king of a new line of royalty) to the aristocratic families, whose support he wanted to be sure of, as well as genuinely religious, Louis knew exactly what this chapel should contain. In a non-literate, pre-Guttenberg society, religious art could illustrate the power of God’s earthly representative, the king; the magnificence of this teaching chapel could provide testimony of the riches at the disposal of that kingly presence.
As she dramatized her story, she frequently queried us at points in good teacher fashion to keep our attention. At one point she DID explain if we wished to give her a gratuity it would be acceptable, but there was no obligation. We agreed: others stayed in the group, but we, unobtrusively as possible, withdrew. We had limited cash with us, our new policy since Barcelona, and had reserved what we had to pay for takeout food.
My attitude towards use of guides, human or audio, varies with the occasion; if I haven’t prepared, I welcome aid. Here, I’d prepared and felt her dramatics were obtrusive. I preferred just drinking in the eloquent magnificence of the mostly original 13th-century art before me.