Wednesday, July 30


Great Churches of the World: La Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

The old court chapel of King St. Louis has lost some measure of its former sacramental glory. Its altar has vanished, while the relics of the Passion it housed have since been removed to the cathedral of Notre Dame only a few paces away. Aesthetically, however, it still manifests the glory of God even as it stands imprisoned in a blatantly secular setting. The great Gothic spike of its spire rises high over the Mansard roofs and ironwork gates of the French ministry of Justice like the stripped mast of a wrecked ship. It is stranded there on the Ile-de-Cite, waiting for the tide of the Seine, a relic of the old royal palace on that site.

The high, angular upper chapel seems almost like an envelope of translucent scarlet and blue suspended between a sacred skeleton of pillars. The stained-glass colors the air to a glorious indigo gloom, transparent darkness, the ultimate fulfillment of the Divine Darkness and Divine Light that St. Dionysius spoke of in his mystical theology and Abbot Suger strove to incarnate in the church of St. Denis at the start of the Gothic epoch. The rainbowed light glances off polychromed vaults shot with gilding, marked with the diapered fleur-de-lys of France and Mary, a field of flowers transformed into a starry night. It gives us one tantalizing glimpse into the real Gothic world, a world of light and color and beauty and gold glittering amid a luminous noontime twilight, not the grimy, blackened universe of horror films and the novels of Horace Walpole. For once, the work of restorers did not destroy but truly gave new life to the antique oratory.

It’s still a remnant, not a living church, deconsecrated and altar-less, but through Divine Providence, it is a glorious remnant. It is a testament to the genius of the Gothic mind and the holiness of the crusader-king Louis the Ninth that even in its diminished state it remains a sublime hymn to the radiant essence of the Godhead.

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