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The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris: Guided Tour, History and Why Visit

Updated: May 7




Sainte-Chapelle in Paris


Semi-darkness and violet light, in the gloomy atmosphere of the Sainte-Chapelle opulence is tangible and the feeling of fascination and marvel is vivid.


Located in Ile-de-la-Cité - the very historical core of Paris - the Sainte-Chapelle was built during the 1240s at the behest of King St. Louis IX of France to house the precious Crown of Thorns worn by Christ during his Passion, but also as a place meant to celebrate the devotion of the monarchy - and the monarchy itself.


A sparkling example of medieval architectural mastery and Gothic style, the Sainte-Chapelle fascinates visitors with its stunning stained-glass windows and it is listed among the national historic monuments of France.


If in Paris, the Sainte-Chapelle is definitely a place you cannot miss! The visit will last a couple of hours and will take you right into the heart of France and its former monarchy!


 

In this article:


The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris: Why Visit
The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris: Your Visit
The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris: Plan Your Visit
The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris: After Your Visit

 


The Sainte- Chapelle in Paris: Why Visit


1. HISTORY OF THE SAINTE-CHAPELLE


The history of the Sainte-Chapelle starts in 1204 when, following the notorious Siege of Constantinople (Istanbul, then part of the Byzantine Empire) by the Venetian Navy and the Crusaders, many valuable relics were stolen from the city and the hunt for potential acquirers began.


One of the most illustrious names that came up was that of Louis IX, king of France, sovereign of a then wealthy and developing kingdom, and therefore willing to spend enormous sums in exchange for prestige. As a consequence, between 1239 and 1241 some of the most precious relics then-known (pieces of the Holy Cross, the Crown of Thorns and others directly linked to Christ himself) left the Byzantine Empire and set off for France.


Now the owner of these incredible treasures, Louis IX decided to build them an appropriate container, a grandiose royal shrine up to both the sacred pieces and his kingdom.

Louis IX (1214-1270) was a French king (reigned 1226-1270), of the House of Capet, later proclaimed saint and now revered as such by the Catholic Church. Louis is known to have been a wise, respectable and fair sovereign, to have worked for the at-the-time ascent Kingdom of France, and to have importantly contributed to the strengthening of the monarchy and its affirmation. In fact, born at a time when the French monarchy and kingdom were still unstable and undefined, he ameliorated the legislation and administration of the country and pacified internal conflicts. His Christian, upright way of living and his renowned faith brought him to post mortem sanctification and made him a role model for French sovereigns in the following decades. He is still considered one of the best monarchs of France.

Construction works for the Sainte-Chapelle began around 1241-1244 and were completed in 1248, this impressive quickness a clear sign of order and availability of resources. Louis IX himself most likely helped design the building, meant to be a part of his own residence, the Palais de la Cité.


After the death of its founder (1270), The Sainte-Chapelle continued its activities as a royal chapel until the end of the 14th century, when the Palais de la Cité stopped being the residence of the monarchs. By then, the canons (clergymen serving as keepers of the Chapelle) had become infamously known for their greed and laxity. Starting from this moment, the Sainte-Chapelle was gradually turned into a symbolic place with little effective importance.


We reach the 18th century: the Sainte-Chapelle had been basically on a hiatus for decades, its spiritual and moral rectitude way too compromised to function.


In the years 1789-1791 the Chapelle knew no mercy from the Revolutionaries (who despised the monarchy and the old cults and wished to eradicate both Christendom and any sign of a king's passage). Its enormously precious shrine was melted down while the relics were mostly spared, subsequently spread all over Paris and never to return to the royal chapel. At the turn of the new century, the Sainte-Chapelle was left in a poor state, little more than a wreck, its furniture disappeared and its structure heavily damaged.


In 1836, after decades of oblivion, the trends changed and the Middle Ages found revived appreciation among the general public. The restoration works at Sainte-Chapelle could finally start. The people in charge of them opted for the replacement of the missing parts and did a good job. In 1863 restoration is complete.


Even though some parts were forever lost, thanks to the restoration work, today we can still admire this incredible place without almost noticing the signs of time.



2. THE MEANING(S) OF A SAINTE-CHAPELLE


Paris and France at the Time of the Sainte-Chapelle

At the time when the Sainte-Chapelle was built during the 13th century, France was a kingdom but not yet a nation. Borders were ever-changing and always uncertain, so belonging was more of a local rather than a national concept.


Similarly, Paris was an important and fast-growing city, but not yet the capital we know today - most of its masterpieces were still a long way from being even envisioned. The city was expanding but its identity still had to be defined and it lacked characteristics that could make it stand out.


The Sainte-Chapelle was built during this identity-building process by those who were most interested in seeing Paris stepping out of mediocrity and France taking a definitive shape: the kings of France.


A medieval view of the Palais de la Cité with Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France
Palais de la Cité as it was - the Sainte-Chapelle is fully recognizable | Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Louis IX - Being a King in 13th-century Europe

The king who commissioned the royal chapel, Louis IX, was in no way like his famous homonymous successors Louis XIV - the Sun King - or Louis XVI: when the saint king was sitting on his throne, the Early modern concept of absolute monarchy did not exist yet.


Medieval kings were revered as sovereigns and their position was evidently unique, but they still had to fight to maintain authority and respect, and they could not take their power for granted. Being a firstborn prince obviously offered good chances to become king, but the passage was not as immediate as it would later become, and it did not give full power over all levels of society.


In the 13th century, tables were nevertheless starting to turn. The monarchs of France had recently started working on defining a capital by incentivizing Paris’s flourishment and giving it a distinguishable royal style. From his side, Louis IX might have not been an absolute monarch, but the program he had in mind for himself and his dynasty was ambitious - and the Sainte-Chapelle was part of it.


Louis IX of France
Louis IX of France as imagined in the Romantic era | Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons


The Importance of a Royal Chapel

Propaganda as we know it would have not been feasible in the 13th century. In a world where images, representations, and artistic expressions were not scarce but unevenly accessible, architecture was a primary medium to address the urban population.


Externally, the Sainte-Chapelle appears now so constricted between more recent buildings that one may find it hard to imagine its visual impact on the city, and yet the surroundings were drastically different and more spacious back when the chapel was built.


The Sainte-Chapelle is what we call a Chapelle Palatine (Palatine Chapel), meaning that it was built as part of a palace and meant for the personal use of the sovereign. Indeed, it was once included in the Palais de la Cité (now Palais de Justice) the ancient royal residence, standing right beside the official seat of the Archbishop of Paris, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame.


The interior of the Sainte-Chapelle tells us more of what Louis wanted his guests to notice: when Louis IX commissioned its construction, people were used to symbols, icons, and signs we ignore today or we are just not too familiar with.


Thanks to a common religion - Christianity - and a common source, the Bible, there was at least one language that could be used by every Christian monarch to communicate with their people and international visitors, and the Parisian Chapelle is evidence of this.


Nowadays, the royal chapel has lost its political significance and can be admired by anyone but this was not the case in the 13th century. The general public normally accessed the building on special occasions only, to venerate the Crown of Thorns. As a royal property, it could be seen by the royal family, the members of the court, the high nobility, and the royal guests, who were also basically those who had a form of political influence.


So, Louis IX carefully chose the decoration of the building so that it could reflect exactly the message he had in mind: the beautiful windows narrate stories from the Bible, focusing on kings from the Old Testament and the Passion of Christ. Referring to his biblical ancestors was a useful expedient for a monarch who was looking for legitimization. In the Bible, we can see kings rightfully exercising their power over people and being in a privileged connection with the Almighty without intermediation. In a time when the Church was still trying to claim its right to deliberate over all Christian men, through these windows Louis IX claimed his own sacral right to rule over all French men that were living in his kingdom.


At the same time, any respectable king still had to prove his worthiness to God and his own subjects with his actions. In the 13th century an appropriate way to express pious devotion was ostentation - the more you possessed, the more grandiose your efforts. Building a magniloquent royal chapel like the Sainte-Chapelle was a common practice to impress both the Lord and the world, but luxury alone was not enough.



The Crown of Thorns in Paris

Every respectable king - and kingdom - had to be the keeper of an important relic to gain authority and legitimization.


By bringing the Crown of Thorns to Paris and housing it in the royal Sainte-Chapelle Louis IX made clear that he wished to position himself as an influential and devoted sovereign and that the kingdom he wanted to build was off to equal or even surpass any other.


From our perspective, the cult of relics appears a bit disturbing and very hard to comprehend. However, Christianity of the past was constantly looking for vessels and intermediaries that could provide a tangible link between the earthly and heavenly worlds. People lived with a foot here and another already there, so relics and objects were crucial to maintaining active communication.


The role of relics reached its peak in the Middle Ages and by the 13th century had already become political. Acquiring important relics brought prestige and authority but also came with some duties: the more important the relic, the more magnificent had to be its container.


Any objects or body parts ascribable to Christ, the Apostles and the Church Fathers occupied the top steps of the podium in terms of importance and relevance and could be in all probability obtained only by very wealthy and privileged people.


Such an exceptional relic like the crown of thorns turned Paris into a desirable destination and associated it with some of the most prestigious urban centers in Europe and with the great holy cities in the world, such as Rome, Jerusalem and Constantinople.


This way, the king gave Paris a prestigious reason to emerge in the European scenario and become a capital worthy of the name.



3. THE SAINTE-CHAPELLE TODAY


When entering the Sainte-Chapelle, you are visiting a piece of French identity.


Today, we are able to see the formation process of France as a whole and understand the importance the Middle Ages had in it: the nation that was still in progress during those centuries became a definite entity later thanks to the efforts of medieval kings.


By building their own authority, the ancient monarchs of France built France.


Louis IX became a role model after his death, and to this day he is the only saint king of France. His later popularity and the success of his experience as a king and as a man today constitute a crucial piece of French history and have become the starting point for later legends, traditions and national spirit. By commissioning the spectacular Sainte-Chapelle for celebrating himself and his devotion, he actually left a mark on French history.


Also, Saint Louis's example was followed by his successors and became a trend: around ten royal chapels were built in France between the 13th and the 16th century, and they all shared the same significance and motives that originally moved Louis IX. Actually, they were all built by his successors, who wished to bond their names to his legacy.


All this not only contributed to the immense cultural heritage of France - and, at the time, embellished the Kingdom with some other magnificent architectural shrines - but also solidify the power of the monarchy and helped artistically define the new-born nation.


 


The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris: Your Visit


1. THE BASICS


  • What: Medieval royal chapel built in Rayonnant Gothic style

  • Where: 10 Bd du Palais, 75001 Paris, France

  • Why: Extraordinary historical value, Gothic architectural mastery, stained-glass windows

  • Building period: 1241 (ca.) - 1248 / heavily restored during the 19th century (1840-1868)

  • Commissioner: Louis IX, King of France

  • Architect: Pierre of Montreuil (disputed - based on mentions in 17th century documents but not confirmed)

  • Current status: structure mostly intact, original features badly damaged during late 18th century & Revolution period, partly restored, original furniture & relics removed


The Sainte-Chapelle and the Palais de Justice, Paris, France
The Sainte-Chapelle today, standing beside the Palais de Justice


2. ARCHITECTURE & EXTERIOR


Once an outstanding and fully visible building meant to compete with its neighbor Notre-Dame, the Sainte-Chapelle now clearly shows the signs of change - today, the view of the royal chapel is partially obstructed by other constructions.


Also, most of what we look at does not come from the Middle Ages, but is the fruit of a long and complex restoration done in the 19th century. Much of the exterior and of the lower chapel has been completely reconstructed less than two centuries ago.


Although magnificent, the Sainte-Chapelle has a very simple and linear structure and consists of 2 floors, each one hosting a different chapel (lower and upper chapel). Access to the upper chapel from the lower is possible through an internal staircase (quick reminder: it's very narrow!).


External access originally did not exist, as the Sainte-Chapelle was not open to the public but part of the royal palace.


The entire place was thought and designed as a glass shrine, its stained-glass decoration a medium to highlight the relics conserved there.


The spire that we see today is actually the fifth version that has been created of it, the first three destroyed by either fire or other catastrophes that were pretty common in the past centuries. The fourth was torn down during the Revolution along with much of the external decoration and the fifth was built in 1852.


The western facade is made of four levels and only a few parts are the work of Middle Ages (the portals mainly, but not the statues, which were completely destroyed during the Revolution). The scenes represented here are in line with the narration of the interior (Old Testament) but include some episodes from the New Testament as well. The original statue of the Virgin and the Child was thought to be miraculous and some stories reached our days.


King Louis IX of France in the lower chapel of the Sainte-Chapelle
Statue of King Louis IX in the lower chapel

3. LOWER CHAPEL


When entering the lower chapel you will notice the presence of a bookshop and you will also have the feeling of being in a crypt rather than a chapel. This is due to the limited height of this place, but also to the current lighting system, which seems to highlight a role that the lower chapel has never had. This place was never meant to be a crypt.


A virtuoso of architecture and polychrome, the Lower Chapel, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Christ's mother, was thought as the chapel destined for non-royals.


Unfortunately, most of what we can see today is the fruit of a restoration: after a devastating flood hit the Chapelle in 1690, the lower chapel was completely whitewashed and the original windows lost forever. As of today, we don't know what they should have represented, but most likely it was a cycle dedicated to Mary.


The decorations present here, including the windows, were laboriously recreated in the 19th century with reference to the remains found, but something was inevitably left to imagination. They are all connected to episodes of the life of Mary.


The medallions that you may notice are also a product of much more recent times (19th century) and depict the Apostles.


On the pillars, half-pillars and murals is the fleur de lys, the symbol of the French monarchy, a clear reference to the founder of this place.


As for the flooring, in the 19th century it was covered by tombstones (a practice of the time seen in many medieval churches), then removed and substituted with the current version.


The marble statue overwatching us from a revering distance is a depiction of the founder of the Chapelle, King Louis IX, again a recent work.


Stained-glass windows in the upper chapel of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France
A view of the stained-glass windows in the upper chapel

4. UPPER CHAPEL


At the end of the staircase we find ourselves in the upper chapel, containing the famous and marvelous stained-glass windows. They cover the entire wall surface and actually substitute it, and include a rose window (this version dating back to the 15th century).


The atmosphere and colors here are similar to those of the lower chapel, but everything is more spacious and grandiose. The height is almost twice the width of the chapel.


This place was destined for the royal family and their guests, and this is how we can explain the upper position and the magnificence of its appearance.


Do not be disappointed by the relative darkness of this place, the stained-glass windows reflect a semi-opaque light!


Not touched by the 1690 flood, the painted decoration here is more complex and mostly dates back to the 13th century, although half of the statues, which again represent the Apostles, have been either destroyed, replaced or moved elsewhere.


In the middle of the apses stands the imposing tribune of the relics, completely dismantled during the Revolution and later restored not without difficulty.



5. STAINED-GLASS WINDOWS IN THE UPPER CHAPEL


This is probably what you were looking for from the start or what brought you here in the first place. This incredible group of stained-glass windows is one of the most vivid and astonishing examples of medieval architectural mastery, and I am personally very grateful to have seen it with my own eyes.


The entire cycle has been here since the time of the Chapelle's construction, with some parts having been redone during the 19th century. A very good job was done on that occasion, with minor alterations to the original narration and in full respect of its iconography.


Here is a visual explanation of the whole iconographic cycle:


Map of the stained-glass windows in Sante-Chapelle, Paris, France
Map of the stained-glass windows | Image Credits: https://reformedfrancophobe.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/sainte-chapelle/


In case you may be interested in reading the windows, you should do so from left to right and from bottom to top, line by line.


The story is narrated using more than one hundred scenes and goes from the Creation (Genesis, Old Testament) until modern times (of Louis IX), then ends with the Apocalypse, representing the end of the earthly world and the beginning of the Reign of God.


Depicting the Biblical history of the world was rather common at the time. However, since the Sainte-Chapelle worked as a political standing point for Louis IX and the French monarchy, the choice of what to represent was politically biased: episodes of Biblical coronations were preferred, and the whole cycle ends with the story of the recovery of the Crown of Thorns and its journey to Paris - a way to celebrate the relics but also to underline the role of Louis IX and to ascribe him right beside the Greatest Biblical Kings.


Unfortunately, it is not easy to observe these marvels due to their height and size. A super useful way to check the stained-glass windows and their decorations is via an app (available on Google Play and Apple Store), which allows you to zoom each window and have a better view of its content. The app has been developed by the Centre Des Monuments Nationaux itself.


You may check it out here:


The official website of the Sainte-Chapelle also offers some more content in case you wish to delve more into the history and artistic significance of this marvelous place!



 


The Sainte-Chapelle: Plan Your Visit


1. HOW TO REACH





The Sainte-Chapelle is located right at the heart of Paris and just a few meters from the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, so you will most likely pass by while visiting the city!


Anyway, the Sainte-Chapelle can be easily reached either by bus or by metro:


By Metro:
  • RER Line B or C: Stop Saint-Michel

  • Metro Line 1,7,11, 14: Stop Châtelet

  • Metro Line 4: Stop Cité


By Bus:
  • Lines 21, 24, 27, 38, 58, 81, 85, 96



2. USEFUL INFORMATION


At the time of my visit to the Chapelle, I remember having to wait for a solid hour and going through a very long line.


To avoid waiting in line, you can purchase a skip-the-line ticket and choose a time slot in advance.

On this page you can easily proceed with the reservation and go through the various options.


Please note that the building is usually pretty crowded and not particularly airy or spacious (especially the lower chapel), and there are a few narrow stairs to climb if you wanna reach both floors, so make sure this is not a problem for you or your company.


Visiting the Chapelle will take you around 1 hour if you decide to buy the audio-guide supplements or if you have a few lines to read. However, the whole process of waiting and going through the mandatory security controls (airport-style) might extend that time. My advice is not to plan any other visit to important monuments/museums during the same morning or afternoon.


The Sainte-Chapelle offers you handy audio guides for 3€ each and you can also download a PDF with some practical and historical info for your visit. Considering the limited space and need to keep your nose up to check the high-standing glass windows, I would definitely suggest opting for the audioguide!



3. TICKETS & TIMETABLE


Here is an overview of the pricing for a visit to the Sainte-Chapelle (updated February 2024):

Adults

13€

People under 18

Free

People 18-25 (from EU countries)

Free

People with disabilities

Free

Partnerships (Amis du Louvre, Thalys, Paris Musées, etc)

11,50€

Combined ticket (+ Conciergerie)

20€

Combined ticket - people under 18

Free

Combined ticket - people 18-25

Free

Combined ticket - people with disabilities

Free


The Sainte-Chapelle is open daily:


  • 9AM-7PM from April 1 to September 30

  • 9AM-5PM from October 1 to March 31


Closed on May 1, December 25 and January 1




 


The Sainte- Chapelle in Paris: After Your Visit


1. MEDIEVAL PARIS: WHERE TO GO NEXT


Are you done with your visit to the Sainte-Chapelle but can't get enough of medieval history and wish to see more?


Medieval times were good to Paris and marked its rise as the capital of the Kingdom of France - so much was built in these centuries, although several buildings, streets and religious sites were later substituted or succumbed to new epochs and their trends.


Here are a few magnificent Parisian places that you may pay a visit after the Sainte-Chapelle:

  • Conciergerie (13th century): the closest one is the Conciergerie, that together with Sainte-Cahepelle is the only remaining portion of Palais de la Cité. Once a royal residence, this marvellous Gothic civic building became a prison and hosted important figures such as Queen Marie Antoinette. Today is a museum and I definitely recommend a visit! It is often used as an exhibition hall, more info here.

  • Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (11th century): let's stay for a bit longer in Ile-de-la-Cité to explore this beautiful building, once a full Romanesque abbey and today a Gothic church with a 1500-year-long history from its first foundation. While there are later additions to the original medieval design, its Gothic structure remains intact and is definitely worth a visit and a 15-minute stroll from the Sainte-Chapelle!

  • Hôtel de Sens (14/15th century): today an art library, this ex-residence was built for the archbishops of Sens, on which Paris depended. Its current appearance is unfortunately not completely genuine, as the place was damaged and then heavily restored in recent times. However, its typical Gothic fascination remains and can be admired during a walk through the Marais (15 minutes from Sainte-Chapelle).

  • Basilica of Saint-Denis (13th century): to be honest, this is probably my favorite place in Paris! Away from the tourist crowds, this breathtaking Gothic shrine is where some of the most important royals of France have found their eternal rest - the royal tombs are amazing and, together with the monumental and luminous structure, they make this place a must for your Parisian tour! Saint-Denis can be reached by metro and bus, from the Sainte-Chapelle is a 30/40 minutes ride (Metro 14 and then 13 or Bus Line 21 and Metro 13).

  • Musée de Cluny (National Museum of Middle Ages): hosted within the 15th-century Hôtel de Cluny, this is the place to be to jump into the medieval history of France and Paris. The collection is large and the building imponent, so save a morning or afternoon for the museum! Find it at a 10-minute distance from Sainte-Chapelle.

  • Notre-Dame Cathedral (13th century): last but definitely not least is one of the symbols of Paris, the much-mourned Notre-Dame Cathedral, severely hit by a devastating fire in 2019. The protagonist of novels, poems and an active part of the collective imagination, the cathedral is now closed for renovations but is planning to re-open soon. You can still get a sense of its beauty from outside, get there from Sainte-Chapelle in 5 minutes!


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