The first time I visited Sainte-Chapelle it was raining and hard to find. My kids and I wandered around before we found it sort of hidden behind a police station. It was interesting. The second time I went there, this time, I talked my wife into coming along.
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Again, it was interesting, but then I noticed a narrow, circular stone passageway and decided I wanted to see where it went. Wow! When I got to the top of the stairs, the full glowing spectacle of the church’s stained glass rayonnant windows was revealed.
French craftsmen have been working for the past 40 years on restoring the stained glass windows and plan to complete that in time for the 800th anniversary of the birth of St. Louis, the French king who ordered the construction of Sainte-Chapelle.
The gothic church on the Île de la Cité was begun in 1239 and christened April 26, 1248. That means it was dedicated 765 years ago.
Besides restoring the stained glass, technicians are also molding a new glass wall on the outside of each stained glass panel between the stone tracery. Glass covers the inside to reduce the effect of the breath of the 700,000 people who visit it each year.
This is not the first restoration. It was restored in 1855 after the French Revolution damaged it. The relics it was originally built to house — the Crown of Thorns and 30 other relics — were dispersed and their reliquaries melted down. Two-thirds of the stained glass windows were left original. In 1803, Wikipedia notes, it was turned into an archival repository and 2 meters of stained glass was removed to let in more light. The removed glass was lost or sold.
While I was photographing the stained glass and then the floor designs, my wife was watching a guy who looked like a pickpocket. With everybody staring up at the ceiling Sainte-Chapelle is a pretty good place for pickpockets. I wasn’t too worried, though, since I don’t carry a wallet in Europe and my small camera case can’t be cut with a knife. The only thing it holds besides my camera is our passports in a zipped enclosure that is always next to my body.
There are 8,000 feet of glass covered surface, the historic monument’s architect in chief, Christophe Bottineau, told Wall Street Journal writer Gabrielle Parussini, who interviewed him in Paris. The rose windows were added in the 15th century.
The police station next to the chapel is where they checked our bags before allowing us entrance. Until I checked Wikipedia I did not know that the police station was likely connected to the conciergerie, an administrative complex that includes Paris’ oldest prison where Marie Antoinette and 2,700 others were held during the Revolution before taken out to be guillotined.
The current restoration work is really restoration of the 1855 restoration by Viollet-le-Duc, who endeavored to make it appear as it did in the 13th century. The current 40-year restoration project involved removing 15 50-foot-high stained glass windows and breaking them down into 1,113 small panels that were then cleaned with the help of laser light, according to Parussini.
When we visited Sainte-Chapelle, one whole side was boarded off with scaffolding. St. Louis’ birth date is April 25, 1214. So, next spring visitors should be able to see both sides of the windows, since that is the target date for completion of the restoration project.
It’s a short walk to the Île de la Cité Metro Station, a beautiful Art Nouveau station entrance. The metro will take you anywhere, even to Versailles or Charles de Gaulle Airport. Our hotel was only two blocks from Gare St. Lazare. The upper level is the station for the national train service, with a glass canopy that looks almost like it did when Claude Monet painted it. We caught a train here for Giverny to visit Monet’s garden.
Michael Raffety is editor of the Mountain Democrat. His column appears biweekly.