The Palais de Justice and the Sainte Chapelle

By Grant Allen


Go along the Rue de Rivoli as far as the Square of the Tour St. Jacques. If driving, alight here. Turn down the Place du Chatelet to your right. In front is the pretty modern fountain of the Chatelet; right, the Theatre du Chatelet; left, the Opera Comique. The bridge which faces you is the Pont- au-Change, so-called from the money-changers' and jewelers' booths which once flanked its wooden predecessor (the oldest in Paris), as they still do the Rialto at Venice, and the Ponte Vecchio at Florence.

Stand by the right-hand corner of the bridge before crossing it. In front is the Ile de la Cite. The square, dome-crowned building opposite you to the left is the modern Tribunal de Commerce; beyond it leftward lie the Marche-aux-Fleurs and the long line of the Hotel-Dieu, above which rise the towers and spire of Notre Dame. In front, to the right, the vast block of buildings broken by towers forms part of the Palais de Justice, the ancient Palace of the French kings, begun by Hugh Capet. The square tower to the left in this block is the Tour de l'Horloge. Next, to the right, come the two round towers of the Conciergerie, known respectively as the Tour de Cesar and the Tour de Montgomery. The one beyond them, with battlements, is the Tour d'Argent. It was in the Conciergerie that Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, and many other victims of the Revolution were imprisoned.

These medieval towers, much altered and modernized, are now almost all that remains of the old Palace, which, till after the reign of Louis IX. (St. Louis), formed the residence of the Kings of France. Charles VII. gave it in 1431 to the Parlement or Supreme Court. Ruined by fires and re-building, it now consists for the most part of masses of irregular recent edifices. The main modern facade fronts the Boulevard du Palais.

Cross the bridge. The Tour de l'Horloge on your right, at the corner of the Boulevard du Palais, contains the oldest public clock in France (1370). The figures of Justice and Pity by its side were originally designed by Germain Pilon, but are now replaced by copies. Walk round the Palais by the quay along the north branch of the Seine till you come to the Rue de Harlay. Turn there to your left, toward the handsome and imposing modern facade of this side of the Palais de Justice. The interior is unworthy a visit. The Rue de Harlay forms the westernmost end of the original Ile de la Cite. The prow-shaped extremity of the modern island has been artificially produced by embanking the sites of two or three minor islets. The Palace Dauphine, which occupies the greater part of this modern extension, was built in 1608; it still affords a characteristic example of the domestic Paris of the period before Baron Haussmann.

Continue along the quay as far as the Pont-Neuf, so as to gain an idea of the extent of the Ile de la Cite in this direction. The center of the Pont-Neuf is occupied by an equestrian statue of Henri IV., first of the Bourbon kings. Its predecessor was erected in 1635, and was destroyed to make cannon during the great Revolution. Louis XVIII. re-erected it. From this point you can gain a clear idea of the two branches of the Seine as they unite at the lower end of the Ile de la Cite. To your right, looking westward, you also obtain a fine view of the Colonnade of the Old Louvre, with the southwestern gallery, and the more modern buildings of the Museum behind it.

Now, walk along the southern quay of the island, round the remainder of the Palais de Justice, as far as the Boulevard du Palais. There turn to your left, and go in at the first door of the Palace on the left (undeterred by sentries) into the court of the Sainte Chapelle, the only important relic now remaining of the home of Saint Louis. You may safely neglect the remainder of the building.

The thirteenth century was a period of profound religious enthusiasm throughout Europe. Conspicuous among its devout soldiers was Louis IX., afterward canonized as St. Louis. The saintly king purchased from Baldwin, Emperor of Constantinople, the veritable Crown of Thorns, and a fragment of the True Cross--paying for these relics an immense sum of money. Having become possest of such invaluable and sacred objects, Louis desired to have them housed with suitable magnificence. He therefore entrusted Pierre de Montereau with the task of building a splendid chapel (within the precincts of his palace), begun in 1245, and finished three years later, immediately after which the king set out on his Crusade. The monument breathes throughout the ecstatic piety of the mystic king; it was consecrated in 1248, in the name of the Holy Crown and the Holy Cross, by Eudes de Chateauroux, Bishop of Tusculum and papal legate.

Three things should be noted about the Sainte Chapelle. (1) It is a chapel, not a church; therefore it consists (practically) of a choir alone, without nave or transepts. (2) It is the domestic Chapel of the Royal Palace. (3) It is, above all things, the Shrine of the Crown of Thorns. These three points must be constantly borne in mind in examining the building.

Erected later than Notre-Dame, it represents the pointed style of the middle of the thirteenth century, and is singularly pure and uniform throughout. Secularized at the Revolution, it fell somewhat into decay; but was judiciously restored by Viollet-le-Duc and others. The "Messe Rouge," or "Messe du St. Esprit," is still celebrated here once yearly, on the re-opening of the courts after the autumn vacation, but no other religious services take place in the building. The Crown of Thorns and the piece of the True Cross are now preserved in the Treasury at Notre Dame.

Examine the exterior in detail from the court on the south side. More even than most Gothic buildings, the Sainte Chapelle is supported entirely by its massive piers, the wall being merely used for enclosure, and consisting for the most part of lofty windows. As in most French Gothic buildings, the choir terminates in a round apse, whereas English cathedrals have usually a square end. The beautiful light fleche or spire in the center has been restored. Observe the graceful leaden angel, holding a cross, on the summit of the chevet or round apse. To see the facade, stand well back opposite it, where you can observe that the chapel is built in four main stories--those, namely, of the Lower Church or crypt, of the Upper Church, of the great rose window (with later flamboyant tracery), and of the gable-end, partially masked by an open parapet studded with the royal fleurs-de-lis of France. The Crown of Thorns surrounds the two pinnacles which flank the fourth story.

The chapel consists of a lower and an upper church. The Lower Church is a mere crypt, which was employed for the servants of the royal family. Its portal has in its tympanum (or triangular space in the summit of the arch) the Coronation of the Virgin, and on its center pillar a good figure of the Madonna and Child. Enter the Lower Church. It is low, and has pillars supporting the floor above. In the polychromatic decoration of the walls and pillars, notice the frequent repetition of the royal lilies of France, combined with the three castles of Castille, in honor of Blanche of Castille, the Mother of St. Louis.

Mount to the Upper Chapel (or Sainte Chapelle proper) by the small spiral staircase in the corner. This soaring pile was the oratory where the royal family and court attended service; its gorgeousness bespeaks its origin and nature. It glows like a jewel. First go out of the door and examine the exterior and doorway of the chapel. Its platform was directly approached in early times from the Palace. The center pillar bears a fine figure of Christ. In the tympanum (as over the principal doorway of almost every important church in Paris and in the district) is a relief of the Last Judgment. Below stands St. Michael with his scales, weighing the souls; on either side is depicted the Resurrection, with the Angels of the Last Trump. Above, in the second tier, is Christ, holding up His hands with the marks of the nails, as a sign of mercy to the redeemed: to right and left of Him angels display the Crown of Thorns and the True Cross, to contain which sacred relics the chapel was built.

On the extreme left kneels the Blessed Virgin; on the extreme right, Sainte Genevieve. This scene of the Last Judgment was adapted with a few alterations from that above the central west door of Notre Dame, the Crown of Thorns in particular being here significantly substituted for the three nails and spear. The small lozenge reliefs to right and left of the portal are also interesting. Those to the left represent in a very naive manner God the Father creating the world, sun and moon, light, plants, animals, man, etc. Those to the right give the story of Genesis, Cain and Abel, the Flood, the Ark, Noah's Sacrifice, Noah's Vine, etc., the subjects of all which the visitor can easily recognize, and is strongly recommended to identify for himself.

The interior consists almost entirely of large and lofty windows, with magnificent stained glass, in large part ancient. The piers which divide the windows and alone support the graceful vault of the roof, are provided with statues of the twelve apostles, a few of them original. Each bears his well-known symbol. Spell them out if possible. Beneath the windows, in the quatrefoils of the arcade, are enamelled glass mosaics representing the martyrdoms of the saints--followers of Christ, each wearing his own crown of thorns: a pretty conceit wholly in accord with St. Louis's ecstatic type of piety. Conspicuous among them are St. Denis carrying his head, St. Sebastian pierced with arrows, St. Stephen stoned, St. Lawrence on his gridiron, etc. The apse (formerly separated from the body of the building by a rood-screen, now destroyed), contains the vacant base of the high altar, behind which stands an arcaded tabernacle, now empty, in whose shrine were once preserved the Crown of Thorns, the fragment of the True Cross, and other relics.

Among them in the later times was included the skull of St. Louis himself in a golden reliquary. Two angels at the summit of the large center arch of the arcade bear a representation of the Crown of Thorns in their hands. Above the tabernacle rises a canopy or baldacchino, approached by two spiral staircases; from its platform St. Louis and his successors, the kings of France, were in the habit of exhibiting with their own hands the actual relics themselves once a year to the faithful. The golden reliquary in which the sacred objects were contained was melted down in the Revolution. The small window with bars to your right, as you face the high altar, was placed there by the superstitious and timid Louis XI., in order that he might behold the elevation of the Host and the sacred relics without being exposed to the danger of assassination. The visitor should also notice the inlaid stone pavement, with its frequent repetition of the fleur-de-lis and the three castles. The whole breathes the mysticism of St. Louis; the lightness of the architecture, the height of the apparently unsupported roof, and the magnificence of the decoration, render this the most perfect ecclesiastical building in Paris.

In returning from the chapel, notice on the outside, from the court to the south, the apparently empty and useless porch, supporting a small room, which is the one through whose grated window Louis XI. used to watch the elevation.

[6] From "Paris."