A SACRED SPACE OF IMMENSE BEAUTY
Where would you put a crown of thorns? Let’s say tomorrow someone gave you the “crown of thorns” that was on Jesus’s head during his crucifixion, and you knew for certain it was that, what would you do with it? Now of course, all speculation aside, this relic requires almost as much faith that it is what is is, as it requires faith to believe there was a man crucified in the times of Roman occupation of Palestine in the most gruesome manner, who, after a couple days in a stone cold tomb, actually rose from the dead. But here we have it. Jesus’s Crown of Thorns.
It has an illustrious French History. Indeed, most French history is illustrious. The French are prone to dramatic and ceremonial illustration. This glass and gold bejeweled container protects the original Crown of Thorns, brought to Paris in the 13th century by King Louis IX. It was transported over from Constantinople, given as a gift to Louis for bailing out his “cousin,” Baldwin of Flanders, who was the Emperor of Eastern Christendom at the time. Baldwin was strapped with massive financial woes due to ransoming off the Crown to an unscrupulous Italian “loan shark” from Venice, and he needed Louis’s burgeoning treasury of gold francs and guiders to secure the thing back. There you have the reason why it made its way to Paris.
Gauthier Cornut, a 13th-century archbishop of Sens, wrote a detailed account of the transfer of the crown to Paris in a text known as the Historia Susceptionis Coronae Spinea. He also orchestrated a number of ceremonies to commemorate the arrival of the relic. Removing his own crown and wearing only a humble tunic (another holy relic saved during the fire at Notre-Dame), Louis IX walked barefoot carrying the relic into Paris in a spectacular procession on August 19, 1239. (Note the banner of this Art Look Post )
The parade ended with a sermon inside Notre Dame cathedral before the relic was locked away in the royal palace. Just nine years later, on April 26, 1248, the Sainte-Chapelle was consecrated in honor of the Passion of Christ. This shimmering, two-storied Gothic edifice enveloped the Crown of Thorns in a dazzling curtain of Gothic glass and color, providing an extraordinary stage for the celebration of Christ’s presence right in the heart of Paris.See Citation
But this ART LOOK is about Sainte Chapelle, not the Holy Relics of Christ’s Passion. I had to build you up first with the magnitude of these highly revered sacred objects. This explains why a whole Gothic chapel would be built to house them, and provide the royal retinue with a sanctified private church in which to keep Christ’s Crown of Thorns, and thus to legitimize their own crowns of Divine Right rulership. Don’t forget, Louis IX walked the Crown barefooted into Paris, wearing a peasant’s smock, humbling himself while devoid of his own kingly crown. That’s some mighty big humble pie when me thinks about it. No wonder he was Sainted by the church in 1297, 27 years after his death from dysentery on his last crusade in Tunisia! His Father died on his last crusade as well, you guessed it, of dysentery.
PATRON OF THE ARTS
Most of the French Kings had a penchant for fine and beautiful things. Louis IX was no different. He inspired the architects of the day to build for him a chapel, but not just any ordinary chapel. He had them build the finest example of Rayonnant period Gothic architecture, which is known for its delicate tracery and brilliant stained glass windows. Built in the decade between 1238 and 1248, King Louis built this gem of Gothic architecture to house his collection of Christ’s relics, mainly the Crown of Thorns mentioned above.
The high proportion of stained glass windows to actual building structure pushes the limits of the possible. One feels engulfed in a conclave of colored light when entering the upper story of Saint Chapelle. Conceived to be the private chapel to the King and Queen, they even had His and Hers Prayer Alcoves built into the main sanctuary. King Louis and Queen Margaret used these marvelous niches to commune with the Divine energy exuded in this striking structure.
Talk about living in a Temple! The King and his Queen were very devout, and made this Sainte Chapelle into their personal sanctuary. The fact that the relics of Christ’s Passion were stored inside made this intensely decorated space into a jewel of royal worship. It was not until after the French Revolution that Sainte Chapelle functioned as anything but the monarch’s personal prayer hut. It was not even accessible to non-royals or commoners for over 500 years. Now, serving more as a museum than a church, anyone who pays the few Euros entry fee can be engulfed in its light.
What Use Is All This Glory?
You might wonder why we are still talking about this small little corner of the world? What use is all this extravaganza of medieval architectural wizardry? We certainly do not build things like this any more. What is the “take-away” of this day at Sainte Chapelle? Well, we visited the place with our friend Monique who lives in Beirut and Paris as well. It was a grand day on the town. I had always wanted to see this quintessential example of High Gothic Architecture whose stained glass usage is world renowned—especially in Art History circles.
It’s a Royal Gold Standard on steroids. Sainte Chapelle still takes a lot on faith, I would say, to appreciate adequately. For the atheist I am sure it seems silly, merely an extravagance of exemplary craft at the expense of the people who lived in relative urban squalor all around the Ile de la Cité. I am not defending the over indulgent obsessions of rampant royalty here, as much I am appreciating what is possible. If beauty is in the eyes of the truthful beholder, speaking from solely a craftsman’s perspective who has had his hands on the tools of the building and artistic trades, Sainte Chapelle is an absolute masterpiece. The hands that made this thing had to be heavenly hands, albeit immersed in worldly acts of uber-artistry. Royal patronage set aside, these creators knew what they were doing in taking us to the sublime.
The fact that maybe we can be blessed, and maybe we cannot, all depends on how we see the whole matter. I come from a place in which sheer craft—the artful making of things—ranks high on my ladder of ascension. We could say that all the gold leaf in the world will not lift us beyond a heavy heart, if that is what we have, but at least it can get our minds off the self inflicted troubles of the world we have made up. The elevated ranking of “high art” in our pantheon of human experiences comes along side those doldrums of the merely mundane. But there by the Grace of God go I. Those peak moments of aesthetic nirvana are never lost on the possibilities of liberation. In fact, I believe they move us along into the realities of our Heaven on earth.
We Went to Sainte Chapelle with Open Minds and Palpitating Hearts.
More so, our hearts were opened farther than they were before. Our minds were expanded into the realms of the Heavenly possible, amidst the masterful movement of materials in this earthly plane. A small corner of the cosmos, on the Island of the French Kings, in one of the most celebrated cities on earth, got my attention for a day. Considering that day in a cavalcade of others that march through my memoirs of the mundane, Sainte Chapelle stands out truly shining. It is a Light House, literally a house full of exquisite light in the effulgent record of my remarkable recollections. I will never forget it.
The Divine Mother is in charge of everything, and certainly She meets and greets us in this kind of an artistic epiphany. My palpitating heart beats daily. Whether it may be housing a “Crown of Thorns” or not, my inner sanctuary nevertheless beats to an encounter with greater glory. These holy moments are much easier to claim in the lingering memory of my day at Sainte Chapelle.