European Architecture Series
Sainte Chapelle, Paris

Rayonnant Gothic Chapel Famous For Its Stained Glass.

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Sainte Chapelle Upper Chapel.
Note the skeletal framework holding
up the walls of stained glass. one of
the great masterpieces of medieval art
from the 13th century.

Sainte Chapelle, Paris (1241-48)
Palais de la Cite, Paris


Sainte-Chapelle: Introduction
Acquisition of the Holy Relics
Architecture of Sainte-Chapelle
Western Facade
Lower Chapel
Upper Chapel
Sainte-Chapelle's Stained Glass
Stained Glass Artists
Articles about Gothic Art and Architecture

For more about the evolution of building designs,
see: History of Architecture (3,000 BCE - present).

Exterior of Sainte-Chapelle, Paris.
West Facade. Notice the vertical
piers supporting the walls and vault.

Gothic pointed arches making up
the vault of the lower chapel at
Sainte-Chapelle, Paris.


Sainte-Chapelle, the ultimate expression of French Gothic architecture, was a royal chapel within the complex of the Palais de la Cite, in Paris. It ranks alongside Notre-Dame Cathedral (1163-1345) and Chartres Cathedral (c.1194-1250) as one of the greatest sites of Gothic art in France, although it exceeds both in the quality of its stained glass art and the manner in which its stone walls have been transformed into shimmering walls of light. Built by King Louis IX between 1241 and 1248 in order to house the Holy Relics of the Passion (he was later made a saint by the Catholic Church), Sainte-Chapelle was an clear statement of the devotional piety and secular prestige of the French monarchy, expressed in the new form of Rayonnant Gothic architecture (c.1200-1350). Richly decorated with a variety of Christian art, including sculpture, a wealth of decorative art and stained glass, this palatine reliquary chapel - whose gloomy crypt-like lower section served as the parish church for the inhabitants of the palace - became the model for all holy chapels built by Louis and his descendants. (The two-story chapel has clear similarities to Charlemagne's palatine chapel at Aachen - something that Louis would have been anxious to exploit in offering himself as a worthy successor to the first Holy Roman Emperor. See Carolingian Art for more.) The translucent beauty of Sainte-Chapelle's stained glass windows amazed its thirteenth century visitors who imagined themselves "introduced into one of Heaven's most beautiful rooms". Later damaged during the French Revolution, the chapel was the object of an exemplary restoration between 1840 and 1868 involving the greatest architects and master craftsmen in France. Following the advice of the restoration specialist Eugene Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79), the architects, guided by archeological research, restored the building to its thirteenth century appearance, eliminating the later additions to its construction. The chapel retains one of the most extensive on-site collections of thirteenth-century stained glass anywhere in the world.

For a guide, see:
Architecture Glossary.

Flamboyant Design
For details of the
architectural style that
replaced Rayonnant, see:
Flamboyant Gothic Architecture.


History: Paris and the Kingdom of France (1230)

King Louis IX was only twelve years old when he succeeded his father Louis VIII as king in 1226. The Regency was ensured by his mother, Blanche de Castille, until his coming of age and marriage with Marguerite de Provence in 1234.

Paris, which it is reckoned had a population of two hundred thousand inhabitants, was the political capital of the kingdom and the seat of the Chancery, Parliament and Audit Chamber; the king also had his palace there, in which the Chartes treasury housed the archives and principal royal deeds. Paris was equally the intellectual capital, with an internationally renowned University, as well as an artistic centre where courtly arts were practiced - goldsmithing and silver working, tapestry art, miniature ivory carving and illuminated manuscripts - and with building sites as prestigious as Notre-Dame Cathedral (1163-1345), which was still in the process of construction. For more, see: Medieval Christian Art (c.600-1200).

At the heart of the city, on the probable site of the old residence of the Roman prefects, Philippe Auguste had built a palace (the Palais de la Cite) that his grandson, Louis IX, altered and enlarged. It was here that he resided when he was not at Vincennes. It is very likely that besides the Sainte-Chapelle and the adjoining Chartes treasury, the future St Louis was responsible for the building of the arcade that was later to be known as the Galerie des Merciers, (connecting the chapel to the king's appartments), three houses for the canons of the Chapelle, as well as the erection of the tour Bonbec and the adjoining hall, known as the Salle St Louis, which today no longer exists.

The Sainte-Chapelle and part of the tour Bonbec are all that remain of St Louis' palace, which served as the residence of the kings of France until 1417; it remained, however, the seat of the kingdom's judicial and financial administration.

Altered at the end of the thirteenth century by Philippe the Fair, the palace also underwent a few modifications in the style of Renaissance architecture during the fifteenth century, before being heavily damaged by the fire of 1776 which destroyed the Galerie des Merciers and led to the demolition of the Chartes treasury. Restorations undertaken during the nineteenth century and the new buildings put up mostly under the Second Empire gave the principal buildings their present day appearance.

Acquisition of the Holy Relics

During the thirteenth century, the kingdom of France was rich and powerful. It maintained privileged relationships with the Middle East, and particularly with Constantinople after the town's capture by the Crusaders in 1204. In 1237, the new Franc Emperor of the East, Baudoin II de Courtenay, was faced by heavy expenses of a mainly military nature; he tried to meet these by selling the Relics of the Passion that were preserved in Constantinople and which he had already partly pledged to the Venetians. In 1239, Louis IX bought from him the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ during the Passion, for the huge sum of 135,000 livres. For the very pious Louis IX, who was the model for all the Christian kings, this was the opportunity to affirm his devotion to Christ, make his kingdom the beacon of western Christianity and support the endangered Franc Empire. Buying the relics was both a religious and a political act.

On 18 August 1239, the king deposited the Crown of Thorns with great ceremony in the former palatine chapel of St Nicholas, built in the mid-twelfth century close to the Palais de la Cite. Two years later, Louis IX bought a fragment of the True Cross from Baudoin II as well as other relics connected with the Passion, the Virgin and the saints; these arrived in Paris on 14 September 1241.

It is probable that from this date onwards the king thought of building a monumental reliquary to house the precious relics in a dignified manner within the palace precincts, in a similar fashion to the Christian Emperors of the East. It was to have the function and form of a reliquary, as well as the sumptuous interior decoration which gives it the appearance of a monumental piece of jewellery.

Transfer of the Holy Relics
The Crown of Thorns and the fragment of the True Cross are the most precious of all the relics bought by Louis IX from emperor Baudoin II. In 1239, wishing to greet the Crown of Thorns immediately on its arrival on his territory, the king, accompanied by his brother Robert d'Artois, bishop of Puy, the queen and Gautier Cornut, the archbishop of Sens, went to Villeneuve-l'Archeveque (today part of the Yonne), where the relic had been conveyed by two Dominican friars Jacques and Andre de Longjumeau. The royal train escorted the Crown along the waterways as far as Paris. From 1248 onwards, on Good Fridays, the day commemorating Christ's sacrifice, the king undertook the solemn display of the True Cross. The most precious relics were displayed in the Sainte-Chapelle in the "Grand-Chasse", a large reliquary gilded in silver and copper, which cost 100,000 livres to build. Initially placed above the altar, the Large Reliquary was raised onto a platform built between 1264 and 1267. The Large Reliquary and all the relics were melted down during the Revolution. The Crown of Thorns, deposited in 1793 in the cabinet of Antiques, was handed over to the archbishop of Paris in 1804 and is still preserved in the treasury of Notre-Dame in Paris.

Construction of Sainte-Chapelle

The Sainte-Chapelle is the Gothic expression of Carolingian palatine chapels, of which the best known is the present cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle, in Germany, built around the year 800 as an oratory for Charlemagne. In 1238, St Louis had already founded a palatine chapel adjoining the chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (Yvelines), with only one storey, on which the plan of the upper chapel of the palais de la Cite is possibly based. The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris is composed of two stories of identical surface area but differing height, each with a precise function: the upper floor, on the same level as the royal appartments, housed the relics and was reserved for the king, his closest entourage and his distinguished guests; the lower floor was the palace parish, open to the king's soldiers and servants as well as to courtiers in residence. Other double chapels were built elsewhere in France, for instance those at Laon, Reims or Meaux, for castle or episcopal use and are considered as jewels of Gothic art. The Sainte-Chapelle exceedes them all by its size and the daring of its conception. Its surface area is 56 feet wide by 118 feet long. It is 139 feet high, excluding the steeple, which places it at the forefront of Gothic cathedrals in France.

The exact dates of the foundation as well as the start of building are unknown, but documents specifying dates enable us to follow the progress of the site. A bull from pope Innocent IV implies that work on the Chapelle had already begun in May 1244. In January 1246, the king founded, by an act of 'first foundation', a college of master chaplains each assisted by a priest, a clerk, a deacon and a sub-deacon, for the protection of the relics, the celebration of worship in the Chapelle, the organization of the display and the upkeep of the stained glass windows.

The Chapelle was formally consecrated on 26 April 1248 in the presence of the papal Legate, Eudes de Chateauroux, who dedicated the upper chapel to the Holy Cross, and of Pierre Berruyer, archbishop of Bourges, who consecrated the lower chapel to the Virgin. In August 1248, the king signed the second foundation act, at Aigues-Mortes, before embarking on the seventh crusade, confirming and completing the clauses of 1246.

Work must therefore have begun between the autumn of 1241 and the spring of 1244 and been completed by 26 April 1248. It took between four and six years to erect this masterpiece whose construction cost was evaluated at about forty thousand livres, according to the accounts and documents assembled for the canonization process of Louis IX.

Chief Architect
No document mentions the name of the chief architect of the royal building site. An oral tradition that goes back to the sixteenth century, attributes the building of the Sainte-Chapelle and of the Chartes treasury to Pierre de Montreuil (1200-66), master mason at the abbey of St Denis and chief architect of the transept at Notre-Dame in Paris. The presence of elaborate gables above the windows and the architectural relationship recorded between the Parisian palatine chapel and the chapel of the Virgin in the cathedral of Amiens, suggest that we should consider a master from Northern France. The art historian Robert Branner has attributed the Sainte-Chapelle to the master mason Thomas de Cormont, while others favour Jean de Chelles or Robert de Luzarches. Whoever the architect was, it is certain that he possessed exceptional ability and a perfect mastery of monumental perspective.

Architecture of Sainte-Chapelle (Rayonnant Gothic Style)

Sainte-Chapelle is a typical example of Rayonnant Gothic style architecture, a style characterized by extreme degrees of illumination along with the appearance of structural lightness. In addition, decorative elements are given much greater importance in Rayonnant structures. For another renowned example, see: Cologne Cathedral (1248-1880).

At Sainte-Chapelle, the mass of the upper chapel, with its steeple dominating the administrative buildings of the palais de Justice, can be admired from the Boulevard du Palais, through the railings which enclose the cour du Mai. A passage leads to the courtyard of the Sainte-Chapelle enabling a first view of the apse before skirting the south side to enter it.

The elevation reflects the structure of the building. The massive appearance of the lower walls, whose openings are their only decoration, is opposed to the slender structure of the upper storey. The thick glacis emphasized by a relief sculpture frieze of foliage, that encircles walls and buttresses, corresponds to the floor level of the upper chapel.

An overall feeling of balance is given by the strongly salient vertical support elements of the buttresses, which lend dynamism and rhythm to the entire building. Their unpolished, bare surfaces contrast with the fragmented ones of the stained glass windows which reflect the sun's light. Above the protruding gables that top the windows, behind the pyramidial cappings of the buttresses decorated with gargoyles, the nineteenth century restorers placed a ballustrade, restored from preserved fragments of the original.

The last eastern bay of the nave is filled by the royal oratory, incorrectly known as the 'St Louis oratory', added during the fourteenth century between two buttresses. Only the ground floor is in good condition. All the sculpted decoration has been renovated: the great gable and the upper balustrade, decorated with monumental fleurs de lis and the large crowned L of Louis XII, are additions from the early sixteenth century; the statues of the king to the left, the bishop to the right and the Virgin and Child date from the nineteenth century.


The steeple that we admire today, 108 feet high, is the fifth to rise above the Chapelle since the thirteenth century. The original design remains unknown, but the second steeple, rebuilt in 1383 under the reign of Charles V, figures in a miniature painting in the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1413), by Limbourg Brothers (fl.1390-1416). The steeple that replaced it around 1460, known through several drawings and prints, was burnt in 1630; a fourth construction was in its turn destroyed in 1793. Aiming at archeological accurateness and working without any earlier documents, Lassus had the present day steeple built in the style of the fifteenth century. Begun in 1853, the work is a real technical feat executed in cedar wood by the carpenter Bellu. The wood carving that decorates the steeple as well as the apse angel were completed around 1855 in the workshop of Adolphe Geoffroy-Dechaume. The architect Lassus and the painter on glass Louis Steinheil figure amongst the apostles sculpted at the base: the first as St Thomas, recognizable by his attribution of the square which here bears the architect's name, the second as St Philip. Above the hollowed-out ornamental gables, angels carry the instruments of the Passion and give trumpet calls.

Western Facade

The western facade is preceded by a strongly salient two storeyed porch, comprising a large central bay with two narrower ones on each side. The porch is overlooked by the great rose window of the upper chapel, dating from the end of the fifteenth century. At the base of the gable, a balustrade with fleurs de lis bears the initials of Charles VIII who is carried by two kneeling angels. The western mass is enclosed by the staircase turrets, whose departure is cleverly concealed in the first buttresses of the nave. Their pyramidial top is decorated with the royal crown of France and the crown of Thorns, sculpted in the fifteenth century and restored in 1845 by Geoffroy-Dechaume.

The lower chapel was reached on foot from outside, whilst the king and his guests reached the upper chapel, placed on the same level as the royal appartments, by the palace arcades.

The stone sculpture around the portal was destroyed at the Revolution and the present day decoration is a restoration by Geoffroy-Dechaume that dates from the middle of the nineteenth century. For another exquisite example of French architecture, see: Eiffel Tower (1887-89).

The Lower Chapel

With its height beneath the vault of only 21 feet, the chapel resembles a crypt. It is composed of a central nave 20 feet wide and very narrow side aisles seven feet wide which form the ambulatory of the apse.

The thrusts of the central vault are buttressed by elegant, small interior flying buttresses, the braces, a particularity of the construction. The vaults of the apse are held in place by a metal structure dating from the time of construction, hidden under plaster and paint, that follows the curve of the ribs. The openings of the nave, which resemble curved pierced tympana lined with rose windows and trifoils, have an unusual form which Robert Branner has likened to the western bays of the side aisles in the cathedral of Amiens.

The flooding of the Seine during the winter of 1689-1690, caused important damage to the lower chapel. It particularly damaged the original paintwork and required the taking up of the floor and funerary slabs, moving of the altars and taking down of the stained glass windows. The use of the chapel as a grain store, during the Revolution, was less devastating.

We do not know anything about the stained glass windows of the lower chapel. Taken down after the flood, they were replaced shortly after 1690 by colourless stained glass windows The present day windows, devoted to the life of the Virgin, were drawn by Steinheil during the nineteenth century. In the nave, small scenes are inscribed in a decorative grisaille. In the apse, the two lancet windows have full coloured glass. In the axial window we find The Coronation of the Virgin between The Adoration of the Magi to the left and, The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Joseph and the Prophetess Anne and The Visitation to the right. In the left lateral bay, a door led to the sacristy situated on the ground floor of the Chartes treasury. Unable to contain any glass, this bay was decorated in the thirteenth century by a mural painting of The Annunciation painted directly on the wall. The painting, discovered in 1849, was restored by Steinheil. See also: French Painting (c.1400-1900).

The Upper Chapel

The upper chapel, which is reached today by the narrow corkscrew staircases leading to the roof, amazes us by its dimensions, elevated structure, sumptuous decoration and the multi-coloured sparkling light that streams through its stained glass windows. Built according to an extremely simple design, freeing a space 34 feet wide by 108 feet long, it is composed of a single nave with four bays, finishing in a seven-sided apse.

The walls are non-existent, replaced by surfaces of glass that appear to be of an astonishing lightness. The glass surface, 6,458 square feet without the rose window, is marked by elegant stonework supports which hold up the ribbed vaulting. Their slimness is a cause for wonder, but a cluster of nine pillars cleverly disguises their real thickness. The architect has, as much as possible, transferred the supporting elements to the exterior so as to liberate a huge interior space. This architectural daring, defying the laws of balance, relies upon optical illusion and employs strategems that demonstrate the chief architect's ability: two metal clamps ensure the coherence of the stonework and the glass' resistance to the wind, encircling the upper chapel halfway up the bays at the top of the lancets, where the eye mistakes them for the saddle bars of the stained glass windows; other metal elements hidden in attics ensure that everything is held in place; the difference in height between the windows of the nave (51 feet) and those of the apse (45 feet), although their lancets are the same size; the narrowness of the bays of the apse and the hardly visible salience of the supports enhance the extreme lightness and height of the chapel, 67 feet beneath its vault.

Sainte-Chapelle's Stained Glass

The upper chapel owes its reputation to its homogeneous group of stained glass windows. The 15 thirteenth-century stained glass windows and the western rose window, replaced in the fifteenth century, give a coloured light whose intensity has always been the cause of admiration. The infinite fracturing of the colours produces a multi-coloured light whose general tone, predominently blue and red, changes from hour to hour. These stained glass windows, composed of 1,113 figurative panels, nearly two thirds of which are original, constitute one of the great treasures of stained glass religious art in Europe.

The windows of the nave, 50 feet high and 15 feet wide, are divided into four lancets, joined together under a tympana composed of a rose window with six foils and two quadrifoils. The windows of the apse, 44 feet high and 7 feet wide, only have two lancets topped by three trifoils. The considerable homogeneity of the whole results from its overall narrative composition. The space is divided into small, well-defined scenes, held in place by saddle bars, wrought according to the various forms of the pannels: quadrifoil, diamond, medallion, trifoil or oval. Compositions partitioned in this manner were generally reserved for the stained glass of low windows, like those of the side aisles of Chartres cathedral. Here, the height of the windows and the reduced scale of the characters makes reading of a third of the scenes practically impossible by the naked eye.

The illuminated scenes are separated on an ornamental background known as the mosaic, simple squaring or oblique lattice mainly in red and blue, concerning eight of the fifteen windows. The background is also sometimes decorated with heraldic elements, the towers of Castille and the fleurs de lis of the French crown, as is the case with seven bays and the edging of three of the stained glass windows. Curiously, Queen Marguerite of Provence, the wife of Louis IX, is hardly evoked in the building.


Unlike the low windows of cathedrals, which generally illustrate hagiographical cycles, the windows of the Sainte-Chapelle are destined to glorify the relics of the Crown of Thorns and the True Cross.

Madame Francoise Perrot, specialist in stained glass windows, has demonstrated that the iconographical program of the stained glass windows belongs to two separate but interdependent cycles, each corresponding to a part of the Chapelle. A first historical cycle illustrates the life of the Jewish people according to biblical accounts from Genesis to the Book of Revelations. It includes the account of the transferral of the relics, a major event during the reign of St Louis, which originated the construction of the chapel: the king of France is placed in the continuity of the kings of Israel, which makes the French royalty heirs to biblical royalty. This narrative cycle of Old Testament Biblical art is developed in the stained glass windows of the nave, the part of the Chapelle intended for the laity. The stained glass windows of the liturgical choir, reserved for the king and canons, illustrate the childhood and Passion of Christ surrounded by stained glass windows devoted to the two important St Johns: St John the Baptist, considered as the last of the prophets, and St John the Evangelist, visionary of the Revelation. The illustration of the books of the four great prophets (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Daniel) complete this prophetic cycle.

Meeting the requirements of the royal commission, the Chapelle's stained glass windows are studded with allusions to royalty: the heraldic motifs on the backgrounds or edging, the numerous representations of coronation scenes, the presence of Louis IX wearing the Christ's crown. This contemporary historical event is completed by numerous battle and idolatory scenes, which evoke the mission which drove the king to leave for the crusades, after the consecration of the Sainte-Chapelle.

Although we owe St Louis the overall conception of the building, there is no doubt that the king surrounded himself with theologians for the elaboration of such a complex iconographical programme. Comparisons with the moralized Bible (1230-1240) suggest that the team of scholars could have supplied the pieces of information necessary for the realization of both the illuminations and the stained glass windows.

For more on illuminations, see: Gothic Illuminated Manuscripts (up to 1350) and International Gothic Illuminations (c.1375-1450).

Stained Glass Artists

The execution of the stained glass windows required the assistance of numerous contributors who have remained anonymous. Stylistic differences would lead to suppose that the fifteen stained glass windows were executed by three different workshops, each grouping together several artists.

To the similarities of composition noted between the stained glass windows of the Sainte-Chapelle, the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Chartres and the church of Saint Germain-des-Pres in Paris, are opposed stylistic differences that make it unlikely that the same workshops were involved. Royal commissions dominated contemporary production: the glass used was of very good quality, the decoration splendid, the rapidly drawn figures executed with much verve and freedom. The striking likenesses between these stained glass windows and those of the ambulatory of the cathedral St Gervais St Protais in Soissons lead us to suppose that artists from the Sainte-Chapelle site worked on the windows of the Soissons cathedral in the middle of the century. The rare panels preserved attributable to the artists in stained glass of the Sainte-Chapelle are today grouped together in the axial window. For more, please see: Stained Glass Art: Materials and Methods.


Although Sainte-Chapelle is dominated by its stained glass, it is decorated throughout with a variety of Gothic sculpture, in a range of materials and colours. Above the dado level in the Upper Chapel, for instance, there are 12 life-size stone figures depicting the 12 Apostles (six of which are replicas - the originals being in the Musee du Moyen Age), mounted on the shafts that separate the great windows. See also: Romanesque Sculpture (1000-1200).

Articles about Gothic Art and Architecture

Medieval Artists (c.1100-1450) From Gislebertus onwards.

German Gothic Art (1200-1450) Architecture, sculpture, wood-carving.

Gothic Sculpture in England (1150-1250) Wells, Westminster cathedrals.

German Gothic Sculpture (c.1150-1400) Stone and wood carving.

International Gothic Art (1375-1450) Sculpture, illuminations, painting.


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