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La Sainte-Chapelle in 1828 La Sainte-Chapelle today

La Saint-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) at 4 Boulevard du Palais, Paris, on the Ile de la Cité, is an important medieval church restored by several architects (Félix Duban, Jean Baptiste Lassus, Louis Sureda and Émile Boeswillwald), with Lassus being appointed in late 1836, and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79) joining the team as as "Sous-Inspecteur" a few years later. The project was completed in 1867. The chapel is seen (above left) as Auguste Pugin and his son A. W. N. Pugin saw it in 1828, when preparing a topographical book about Paris, and (above right) as it is today, from across the courtyard of the Palais de Justice. What is interesting about the engraving (executed under the supervision of Charles Heath, as it says on the title page) is that in the lower lefthand corner is written, "A. Pugin Junr delt" — in other words, it was drawn by the younger Pugin. "He was not, then or later, especially gifted as a water-colourist or a topographical artist," writes Rosemary Hill. "He chose the buildings that he liked best, including the Gothic highlights, Notre Dame, the Hôtel de Cluny and the Sainte-Chapelle" (78).

The chapel was originally built to house important religious relics. Auguste Pugin explains in his text,

ST. Louis of France purchased of the Emperor Baudouin, and at a vast expense, a number of relics, part of which consisted of the crown of thorns, said to have been the identical one worn by the Saviour; a part of the cross itself, part of the mantle he wore, and the point of the lance with which he was pierced. The whole of these were received in Paris, with solemn pomp; and for their reception, the king ordered the erection of Sainte Chapelle. It was commenced about the year 1242, and finished in 1248. Pierre de Montreuil, one of the most skilful architects of the day, who distinguished himself greatly in producing the most elegant forms of Gothic architecture was employed in its construction. This chapel is remarkable for being divided into two stories.

Pugin adds, "The upper story was devoted to the service of the king and his officers; it is about 110 feet in length, and 27 feet in breadth.... (24). It is because of this two-storey structure that La Sainte-Chapelle now appears to be rather curiously perched above the surrounding buildings, which postdate it.

Sainte-Chapelle roofline, Paris Sainte-Chapelle west door, pediment

The chapel had been badly damaged during the French Revolution, losing its early seventeenth-century spire then. When the Pugins saw it, it was being used to house archives, and had not yet been restored. Many points of difference can be seen in the engraving, not just the presence of the later structures which unfortunately obscure it. Most obviously, the roof is once more surmounted by a tall spire, and also a stone sculpture of the Archangel Michael, while more fanciful gargoyles have joined the thicket of crocketed stone spires capping the heavy buttressing. Under the entrance porch is a rather conventional double doorway, deeply recessed with a carved tympanum depicting Jesus with the Virgin Mary, receiving her crown, flanked by angels. A statue of the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus stands between the two portals. There is nothing here to suggest the breathtaking splendour within.

Viollet-le-Duc was as influential in France as Pugin and Ruskin were in England, and his work on the chapel in the mid-Victorian period, even as one of the several architect involved, attracted a good deal of attention from outside France. It can be seen as the beginning of his "architectural crusade" to recover the Gothic and regenerate French architecture (Bressani 133). Even the lower chapel comes as a surprise, making it is easy to see why (and how) the chapel inspired and influenced Sir George Gilbert Scott and other major Victorian architects. "We all crib from Viollet-le-Duc," wrote William Burges with disarming honesty (qtd. in Crook 94), though with reference to his architectural drawings rather than his later more interventionist restorations, which Burges heavily criticised. One way or another, the French architect's influence can be felt in many of his buildings (see also Curl 62), as well as in many of those designed by his English contemporaries.

Lower Chapel

Lower Chapel interior Lower Chapel tracery window Lower Chapel roof

Left to right: (a) Interior of the Lower Chapel looking to the ritual east. (b) Lower Chapel tracery window. (c) Lower Chapel roof.

This part of La Sainte-Chapelle was originally for the royal staff, or parishioners, and was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, hence the statue and tympanum carving at the entrance (see "La Sainte-Chapelle"). Of particular relevance, when looking at it, is Viollet-le-Duc's view that the Gothic style was "defined by its structural innovations," which he saw as coming from "the perfect equipoise of its skeletal components." This, he believed, "was produced by the precisely executed interdependence of all parts." The ribs or vaults were of prime importance to him, along with the "piers and buttresses supported by the foundations" outside; on the other hand, the "walls and webbing were infilling, to keep bad weather out and warmth or coolness in," and not essential to the skeleton itself. According to Violett-le-Duc, perfect "equilibration" was what made the building dynamic and gave it the feel of "a living organism" (Reynolds 39-40). In keeping with that idea, here, the starry blue of the ceiling suggests the sky (and heavens) above.

Upper Chapel: Stained Glass

Upper Chapel interior

The magnificent stained glass panels supported on the minimum of frames.

This was originally the royal chapel, where the holy relics were kept in the reliquary. Its great glory is the stained glass here, with fifteen tall panes only thinly separated from each other going right round the apse and up to the very roof. The goal had been stated unequivocally by the committee overseeing the restoration of the windows: "Melt the new work with the ancient in order to generate a perfect illusion" (qtd. in Bressani 125). Thus, according to the nineteenth-century commentator M. F. Guilhermy, the smallest fragments of the old windows were scrupulously preserved, and carefully researched so that gaps in the sequences of episodes shown could be accurately filled (58). About two-thirds of the glass is therefore said to be original ("La Sainte-Chapelle").

Close-up of central panels The great rose window One pair of scenes

Left to right: (a) Close up of central panels of the windows. (b) The great fifteenth-century rose window, currently under conservation: this is a photograph taken several years before the others. (c) Close-up of one pair of scenes.

The iconography of the windows makes a fascinating study, reminding us that people were expected to learn about the Bible from this visual aid. The whole Christian narrative unfolds here, starting with the events of Genesis in the north-west, featuring the Passion in the central window of the apse, and reaching, at the very end in the south-west, the finding of the holy relics that were originally housed in the chapel. These episodes in the last window show in fascinating detail the presentation of the relics to the king, and their miraculous efficacy (see Guilhermy 60). In so doing, the scenes subtly suggest not only the piety but also the power of the king himself.

The small band of French Gothic Revivalists here had a great deal of impact on their contemporaries in England, encouraging them to use new materials more adventurously. Scott, for example, used iron instead of stone pillars in the new King's College Chapel, London, as well as adopting the apsidal structure in churches and chapels such as St John's College Chapel, Cambridge. Looking further ahead, we find Michael Brooks quoting an 1887 letter from Ruskin to a student: after praising Viollet-le-Duc's Dictionary as the only "book on architecture of any value — and that contains everything rightly," he added, "Every architect must learn French, for all the best architecture is in France" (290).

Presenting the relics

Related Material


Bressani, Martin. Architecture and the Historical Imagination: Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, 1814-1879. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014.

Brooks, Michael W. John Ruskin and Victorian Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.

Crook, J. Mordaunt. William Burges and the High Victorian Dream. Revised ed. London: Frances Lincoln, 2013 [review].

Curl, James Stevens. Victorian Architecture. Newton Abbot, Devon: David & Charles, 1990.

Guilhermy, Ferdinand, Baron de. Sainte-Chapelle. Paris à La Sainte-Chapelle, 1899. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of Michigan. Web. 3 December 2014.

Hill, Rosemary. God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain. Pbk ed. London: Penguin, 2008 [review].

"La Saint-Chapelle." Web. 3 December 2014.

Pugin, Augustus. Paris and its Environs: Displayed in a Series of Two Hundred Picturesque Views, from Original Drawings. London: Jennings and Chaplin, 1831. Contributed by the Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Internet Archive. Web. 3 December 2014.

Reynolds, Donald Martin. Nineteenth-Century Architecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Last modified 3 December 2014