Entering La Sainte-Chapelle (The Holy Chapel) is like stepping into a glass jewel box studded with brilliantly colored gems. This stunning wonder of 13th century architecture and artistry (consecrated in 1248) was once part of the royal palace, though today it is hidden behind a cluster of 18th century administrative buildings on the Île de la Cité in Paris.
Built by King Louis IX to house his precious collection of holy relics, the Sainte-Chapelle is itself the ultimate holy reliquary (the containers, usually made of precious metals and jewels, were designed to hold the bones of Christian saints and martyrs). In 1239, Louis (1214-1270, the only French King to be designed a saint) acquired one of the greatest of holy relics, the Crown of Thorns, allegedly worn by Christ at his crucifixion as well as some 30 other relics associated with Christ’s Passion. (Such relics connected to the life and death of Christ were considered the holiest of holy relics, along with anything associated with the Virgin Mary. In the hierarchy of Relic Collections, then came relics of the Apostles and early martyrs, and somewhat lower down the rung of desirability the remains of local saints of which there were literally thousands in the Middle Ages.)
Unlike most crusaders (Louis led 2 unsuccessful crusades against the “infidels”) and relic hunters, the king actually paid for his treasures (as opposed to stealing them! – more of this in a future blog post). In this case he shelled out a whopping 130,000 livres paid to the Venetian merchants who held them in hock for the impoverished Emperor of Constantinople. In today’s money that is equivalent to about $25 million! By contrast the Chapel itself cost a mere 40,000 livres – approximately $7,000. Other relics included the Holy Lance, said to have pierced the side of Christ at his Crucifixion and a piece of the true cross. (According to the French Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, there were enough pieces of the true cross floating around Europe by the 16th century to build several large ships!)
All humor and skepticism aside, the Chapel remains a stunning testimony to 13th century piety and genius. Sadly most of the relics disappeared or were destroyed at the time of the French Revolution in the 18th century: it is little short of a miracle that the Chapel itself survived.