Visit to Sainte-Chapelle

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It was one of those grey, drizzly Sundays and a perfect chance to take a walk in the gentle rain before retreating to the comfort of home. It was also an ideal day to set out and pay a visit to the only remaining structure of the Capetian’s palace – La Sainte-Chapelle. Its austere, svelte Gothic architecture certainly belies a more elaborate and generous interior design: ornate floors, brilliant frescoes and wall design and intricate stained glass windows. Apparently, its stained glass windows are the most impressive still-surviving ones of the age. Like almost all other major religious buildings in the city, it was not left untouched by the revolution and is therefore something of a massive work of restoration.

While today it poses as a monument – which was overcrowded today I must say – in better times it was built to house Louis IX impressive collection of relics which was reported to include the crown of thorns among other things. Now, one could question the veracity of the claims of the royals to holding souvenirs from the curifixion of Christ but it is clear that the relics and the chapel played much more than just a religious role. It is hard to miss the royal symblogy in the chapel and embedded into the scenes of the staineg glass windws. And it is clear from these that the chapelle served as a means of conferring legitimacy and political authority to Louis and the royals. It makes sense. France at the time would have been holding firmly to politicalpower where constantinople and Aachen has hit more difficult times. So, part from being a house of a collection of relics – and indeed the place of prayer for Louis – it is also an interesting place to get insight into the role that religion played in conferring legitimacy and authority at the time.

Things have changed a lot since then. Fewer people have much of a clue about organised religion. To a much lesser degree is religion viewed as the primary source for political legitimacy in a post-post Christian France. Whether that is a good thing or not is something best left to locals to ponder upon.What is clear is that the echoes to france’s past such as this seem to suggest a grandeur that is quite hard to detect when one hears Nicolas Sarkozy decides to mumble ” casse toi pauvre con” or other such sentiments. One gets the sense that a lot has changed since the days of Louis IX.On his part; Louis IX is reported to have written to his son, Jean de Joinville : “To keep right and justice be thou righteous and steady with thy people, without turning to the right hand or to the left, but straight forward”. Quite a different time and tone.

At the samee time, as a student in Paris receiving an enlightening and liberal education, it is also perhaps safe to say it is not such a bad thing that things have changed. The very fact that I can be critical in a counry zhere I should be minding my ozn business is testa,ent to the many advantages that republican – in the French sense – values have zought.


  1. rimboval says:

    Organised religion may be on the decline in the Western world – but it hangs on more successfully in some countries and in some environments than it does in others. In France, where republican principles ensure that there is no state religion, there is a significant world of difference between the sleek comfort and elegance of a Parisian church like St Louis en Ile and the dusty neglect one finds in many country churches. Didn’t I read some years ago a French bishop proposing that the whole of SW France be formally declared a mission area?

    In the UK, not only does the state church still exist and have its piece of the public space – one that is welcomed by leaders of other faiths – but it is still listened to when it makes quasi-political statements, and there are few parish churches that seem uncared for even in this secular age. Not so in France. Sainte-Chappelle is a showcase for a type of political power refracted through religious references and language that would have been taken as a given when the chapel was built and now has to be explained to visitors. All that has gone because that is how France and the French have developed over the centuries, in ways that St Louis would have found disturbing and treasonous, but basically, totally incredible.

  2. anonsparis says:

    Couldn’t agree more with your reading about organised religion in the West, in France and the differences between the French trajectory and the British one. Incidentally, I’ve been following closely the discussion around the Archbishop of Canterbury’s drive to institute a covenant for the Anglican communion. To me, that is perhaps another sign that the state church is still very much alive in England. The whole process of debate, voting for a covenant and mutli-level discussions are signs of life. It may not necessarily be what King Henry VII and Lady Ann Boleyn had in mind when the Church of England was born but it certainly is a clear cign that religion still holds its own in the UK. Thanks for the comment!

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