Architectural Symbolism and the Decoration of the Ste.-Chapelle

By Weiss, Daniel H. | The Art Bulletin, June 1995 | Go to article overview

Architectural Symbolism and the Decoration of the Ste.-Chapelle


Weiss, Daniel H., The Art Bulletin


The dedication of the Ste.-Chapelle on April 26, 1248, not only marked the completion of a repository worthy of the sacred relics of the Passion, recently acquired from Constantinople by Louis IX, but the event also consecrated a new locus sanctus.(1) As Gauthier Cornut, the archbishop of Sens, observed on the occasion: "Just as the Lord Jesus Christ chose the Holy Land or the display of the mysteries of his redemption, he [has] specially chosen our France for the more devoted veneration of the triumph of his Passion."(2) Indeed, the translation of Christendom's most venerated relics effectively reconfigured the sacred landscape: Paris had become the new Holy Land.

Constructed to house Christ's earthly relics and to serve as the new palace chapel of the French king, the Ste.-Chapelle thus circumscribed a sacred space. Its decoration articulated the religious and political vision of the "most Christian" king in the years just preceding his first crusade to the Holy Land in 1248.(3) Whereas numerous other palace chapels contained relics and functioned as metaphorical reliquaries--Charlemagne's at Aix-la-Chapelle being the most influential early example--the Ste.-Chapelle was unique in its conception as a true religuary.(4) Such a distinction is attested by Pope Innocent IV, who, in May 1244, granted Louis IX the privilege of founding a special college of priests to serve the new chapel and who described the emerging structure in terms heretofore reserved for actual reliquaries and other objects made of precious materials: opere superante materiam.(5) As Robert Branner observed, the interior of the Ste.-Chapelle, with its dazzling display of glass, gilding, painted surfaces, and emblems, was actually a "supershrine" turned outside in.(6) Presumably, one function of such a design was to distinguish the Ste.-Chapelle among ecclesiastical foundations, the essential difference being that once inside, the faithful occupied a sacred space transcending in religious significance that of other such chapels. If one aspect of Louis's vision was to delineate a locus sanctus within the confines of the palace complex in Paris, another was to create in architecture a Christian and Capetian equivalent to the great Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, within which was housed the magnificent ark containing the material evidence of God's covenant with the Jews.(7) Louis's departure on the sixth crusade scarcely four months after the dedication of his new chapel was yet another manifestation of his emerging strategy to forge connections--both religious and political--between France and the Holy Land.(8)

At the time of its dedication, the lavish decoration of the Se.-Chapelle included stained glass, fresco, painted enamels, sculpture, and metalwork. The principal focus of the artistic program was, of course, the upper chapel, where the sacred Passion relics were housed and exhibited. The decoration adorning the walls of the upper chapel included Old and New Testament sequences in the stained glass, the history of the relics of the Passion also in the stained glass, statues of the Apostles affixed to the piers, and simulated enamel paintings of martyrs in a series of medallions in the dado arcade. The relics themselves were placed within the grande chasse. A container made entirely of precious metals and gems, the grande chasse was exhibited at the east end of the chapel on a platform enclosed by an elevated baldachin, which was supported by a tribune screen consisting of three arches flanking the central structure. In images and symbols, the artistic program of the chapel thus unified the distant past of the Old Testament, the Christian past of the New Testament, and the Capetian present. Viewed in this way, the interior of the upper chapel presents what is effectively a Capetian cosmology, affirming in art a spiritual kinship between Paris and Jerusalem. Achieving the reality was the goal of the crusade.

Beginning with the fundamental work of Robert Branner and Louis Grodecki, and continued more recently by Jean Michel Leniaud, Francoise Perrot, and Donna Sadler among others, scholarship on the Ste. …

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