Sainte-Chapelle — Gothic Graphic Novel
Rayonnant Gothic: more height, more light
From early French Gothic emerged a resolve to attain even greater heights and to increase the surface area of stained glass, giving the illusion of airy weightlessness and bathing the interior in colour and light. The novel style was called “Rayonnant” (“radiant”) — Gothic on soma. If Gothic architecture arose from a mystical fascination with light as a reflection of the divine, Rayonnant Gothic was the culmination of the desire to invite as much light as possible into the church.
Sainte-Chapelle, constructed in the mid-13th century as the king’s chapel within the palace complex on Île de la Cité, exemplifies the new ethereal.
Below, the gates of the Palais de la Justice (a functioning courthouse), and behind, the apse of Sainte-Chapelle.
This exterior view shows two major differences from earlier Gothic churches. First, there is no transept — Rayonnant Gothic de-emphasized or eliminated this structure. Also, the heights of Sainte-Chapelle are shored up not by flying buttresses but by thick vertical ribs capped by heavy pinnacles.
The view of the western end shows another striking feature: two separate entrances, one above the other, set within the shelter of a porch:
Each entrance leads to separate chapels: the spectacular light-filled upper chapel was intended for use by the royal family and friends. The palace staff worshiped in the “basement” chapel, whose ceiling was considerably lower and stained glass windows smaller and fewer.
In the upper chapel, the stained glass is the luminary of the Rayonnant drama. The tracery (vertical ribs) play a reduced supporting role, appearing as delicate frames for the windows. The soaring panels of coloured glass wrap around the nave and apse. For the visitor, the experience is akin to surround sound, and the sweet spot is wherever you stand in the sea of light.
Individual frames of eye candy:
The late 15th-century rose window above the chapel’s entrance is characteristic of Flamboyant Gothic, with its elaborate flame-like tracery:
A graphic novel in stained glass
The vertical stained glass panels are chapters in a gigantic graphic novel telling the story from Genesis to Revelation. With a grand sweep of the eyes around the chapel (from the north side, to the apse, to the south side, and ending with the western rose window), Sainte-Chapelle relates Christian mythology from the creation of the world to the end of the world.
The frame below shows a scene from the Old Testament Book of Judith. The femme fatale heroine has infiltrated the enemy encampment of Assyrians, who are planning to attack the Israelites. On the pretext of seducing the Assyrian general Holofernes, she enters his tent, gets him drunk, and, in a pre-emptive strike, beheads him.
At the center of this narrative is the vertical panel of stained glass directly behind the altar, recounting in images the Passion of Christ.
A frame of the Last Supper, in the center of the narrative:
To the far right, the last vertical panel of stained glass relates the narrative of Louis IX’s acquisition of relics from the Passion of Christ. His men traveled to Venice to purchase the alleged crown of thorns and a splinter from the cross. Below, the relics are transported back to Paris by horseback and presented to Louis IX.
Louis IX wanted to add these relics to his collection, which included parts of the Holy Lance, the Holy Sponge, and the Mandylion (image of Jesus’ face imprinted onto a cloth). He commissioned the construction of Sainte-Chapelle to house his burgeoning trove of relics.
These objects were believed to be imbued with a divine power. As such, they proved a useful tool for social cohesion — and control. Kings would parade relics around town, eliciting awe and veneration from their subjects (one of the stained glass frames shows such a scene). They could also be used as barter to replenish the royal treasury in order to fund military adventures. The insatiable hunger for these relics created an ideal climate for hucksters to sell counterfeits to aristocrats.
The culmination of the grand narrative of stained glass in Sainte-Chapelle is the western rose window:
Below: the rose window’s complex arrangement of “petals,” each showing a scene from the Book of Revelation.
This aesthetically stunning stained-glass flower contains some of the most violent scenes of the Apocalypse.
Below are additional scenes from the rose window showing different versions of the multi-headed beast of the Apocalypse. Because I have a soft spot for bestiaries.
The starry-night vaulted ceiling of Sainte-Chapelle
Gargoyles guarding Sainte-Chapelle
Lastly, fine medieval gargoyles protrude from the buttresses, as if ready to pounce on unsuspecting sinners below.