Sainte-Chapelle Map

Pierre de Montereau, 1245-7

The Gothic Revival has confused things so much that the Sainte-Chapelle looks at first like a slice of the English Law Courts put down in the middle of the French Palais de Justice – it faces the Tribunal de Police Correctionelle. The proportions give the game away: improbably tall, with the spherical triangles of the lower storey apparently buckling under the strain. Inside, this undercroft is also patently a device to keep the rest up, with tiny aisles which in fact correspond to the thickness of the piers upstairs which support the vault: Eiffel could have built it. Upstairs is reached via a narrow spiral staircase so that the whole room bursts in at once, and coup d’&il for once is more than a poetic metaphor. It was intended simply to be a very large reliquary, primarily for Christ’s crown of thorns – the actual shrine and various relics were two and a half times more expensive than the building, which was put up in thirty-three months and has stayed up: there are no records of partial collapse or emergency repair. This was no Beauvais, trying to reach Heaven, but a superb piece of physical and emotional engineering – an exhibition pavilion to cap them all.

Sainte-Chapelle Map Photo Gallery

The shrine disappeared at the Revolution, the relics of the relics are now in Notre-Dame. Inevitably, the balance has altered, and what must have been a complementary tension between object and shell now becomes a single gasp upwards and outwards at the colossal stained-glass casket, scintillating rich reds and blues – all wine-coloured, were there such a thing as blue wine -from end to end and floor to vault of this single-minded space.

It is marvellous, but it is no longer a whole building, and the personality which inhabits so many of the lesser constructions of Paris is missing here. Nor is it the summit of Gothic architecture, except in the sense that here is a tall vault with large windows underneath it and damn-all else. With its contents it was one kind of summit, but Gothic architecture as a complete system is much better expressed in Pierre de Montereau’s own nave at Saint-Denis. What the Sainte-Chapelle needs most is to be put to some use – any use, if it were extraordinary enough. At the moment it has the musty air of a national monument.

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