Sainte-Chapelle

Sainte-Chapelle stands on Île de la Cité in the Seine, directly next to the Conciergerie, mere steps from Notre-Dame, and straight across the Pont Neuf from the Louvre. Built in the middle of the thirteenth century to house a host of holy relics in the possession of Louis IX, Sainte-Chapelle originally served as the king’s personal royal chapel. Today it’s most famous for 15 enormous stained-glass windows that tell hundreds of bible stories in a gloriously colorful and ornate fashion.

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History of Sainte-Chapelle

Sainte-Chapelle is located on Île de la Cité, a prominent island in the River Seine at the heart of modern-day Paris. It was here that Clovis I—typically considered the first king of the lands that would eventually develop into France—built a royal palace in 508. In time, this regal complex would become known as the Palais de la Cité. Over the ensuing centuries this site has been rebuilt many times over, with only two attractions that date back as far as the Middle Ages surviving today: the Conciergerie and Sainte-Chapelle.

It’s believed Sainte-Chapelle was built between roughly 1241 and 1248 for King Louis IX, the future Saint Louis who ruled France between 1226 and 1270. King Louis IX had spent the previous two years acquiring some two-dozen holy relics (including an item thought to be the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the so-called True Cross—the one on which Jesus was crucified). These relics had cost him half the kingdom’s income during that time period, and he wanted a suitable place to display his new treasures. Over the nearly 800 years that have passed since its construction, Sainte-Chapelle has survived fires, revolutions, and multiple restorations to stand today as one of the world’s finest examples of Gothic architecture.

Sainte-Chapelle Highlights

The biggest highlight of a visit to Sainte-Chapelle has to be the chance to view its magnificent stained-glass windows in person. The chapel is comprised of 15 monumental stained-glass windows: each one is approximately 50-feet tall and a remarkable two-thirds of them actually date all the way back to the thirteenth century. It’s been documented that across these 15 stained-glass panels a whopping 113 different Biblical stories are depicted, running in chronological order from the chapel’s north façade (where the story of Genesis plays out) to its western façade.

That western façade is anchored by an exquisite rose window (a circular window within a Gothic cathedral) that contains 87 stained-glass panels, each one bearing a scene from the biblical Apocalypse. This apocalyptic rose window is nearly 30 feet wide, and it dates to the late fifteenth century, when France was ruled by King Charles VIII. As with the rest of the stained-glass windows found within Sainte-Chapelle, the artists who created the rose window is unknown to this day.

Another stained-glass highlight of Sainte-Chapelle are the panels installed within the so-called “Bay of Relics.” These panels are among the few panels in the chapel that don’t capture scenes from the Bible’s Old or New Testament, but rather tell the story of how Saint Helena was said to come into possession of the True Cross and a number of other holy relics which eventually made their way to Paris, where they were housed in Sainte-Chapelle (most of them have long since disappeared).

More to See and Do at Sainte-Chapelle

Sainte-Chapelle’s majestic stained-glass windows steal the headlines, naturally, but the chapel is full of several other artistic wonders well worth your time and attention, too.

•Where it’s not covered in dazzling windows, the interior of Sainte-Chapelle is done up in an assortment of beautiful paintings. From simple support columns adorned in rich reds, greens, and golds to walls decorated with symbolic royal motifs to religious murals restored during the nineteenth century, Sainte-Chapelle’s paintings are must-see items, too.

•The same can be said of the many sculptures that line the walls of Sainte-Chapelle. Sainte-Chapelle sculptures of particular note include a statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ in the portal of the lower chapel; a bas-relief of Christ during the Last Judgment in the portal of the upper chapel; and the 12 statues of the Apostles that flank each one of the 12 pillars supporting the chapel’s vault.

•While its lavishly appointed interior tends to be the center of attention, the exterior of Sainte-Chapelle is no slouch either. While not as elaborate as nearby Notre-Dame—no iconic buttresses here—the outside façade of Sainte-Chapelle is still quite striking, and you’ll want to have your camera ready.

•For a small additional fee, an audio guide for Sainte-Chapelle is available. It comes in six different languages. If you’d prefer, you can download an app entitled Sainte-Chapelle Stained Glass straight to your smartphone. This app recognizes every single individual window within the chapel, allowing you to observe zoomed-in versions on your phone as you stand below the real thing.

•Free guided tours of Sainte-Chapelle run each day at 11:00am and 3:00pm, departing promptly from the attraction’s reception desk. Reservations cannot be made in advance.

Why Sainte-Chapelle Should Be on Your Must-See List

Far too many visitors to Paris race past Sainte-Chapelle in their hurry to tour its more famous neighbor, Notre-Dame. Nonetheless, Sainte-Chapelle should rank high on your shortlist of must-see Paris attractions. It’s a marvelously preserved architectural masterpiece and home to some of the most beautiful stained-glass windows you’re liable to come across in this lifetime—and for those on a tight time budget, it can be enjoyed thoroughly in less than an hour.