Notre-Dame has been on everyone’s mind over the last year. But just a short walk away is another stunning Parisian church, with the best stained glass anywhere.
As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.
This tiny jewel of Gothic architecture is a cathedral of glass like none other. It was purpose-built by King Louis IX — the only French king who is also a saint — to house Jesus’ supposed Crown of Thorns.
Louis came upon the crown in Constantinople while on Crusade. Convinced he’d found the real McCoy, he spent a fortune to build a suitable chapel to hold it — and paid triple that for the precious crown. Today, the supposed Crown of Thorns is not on display, but the church is, along with its star attraction: stained glass.
You enter Sainte-Chapelle on the somber ground floor, wind your way up a tight spiral staircase, and then pop out — wow! — into a cathedral that seems to be made of nothing more than glowing colors and radiant light.
Fiat lux. “Let there be light.” From the first page of the Bible, it’s clear: Light is divine. In Sainte-Chapelle, the sunlight shines through the stained glass like God’s grace shining down to earth. The dazzling glory of Gothic glows brighter here than in any other church.
Gothic architects used new technology to turn dark stone buildings into lanterns of light. Sainte-Chapelle has only the slenderest of structural columns becoming ribs that come together to make pointed arches to hold up the roof, leaving “walls” of glass. Sainte-Chapelle was completed in a mere six years (Notre-Dame, just a few steps away, took 200), creating a harmonious structure that’s the essence of Gothic.
Worshippers are surrounded by 15 big windowpanes, with more than 1,000 different scenes. These cover the entire Christian history of the world, from the Creation to Christ to the end of the world — 6,500 square feet of glass in all. Each individual scene is interesting, and the whole effect is overwhelming.
Craftsmen made the stained glass — which is, essentially, melted sand — using a recipe I call “Stained Glass Supreme”: Melt one part sand with two parts wood ash. Mix in rusty metals to get different colors — iron makes red, cobalt makes blue, copper makes green, and so on. Blow glass into a cylinder shape, cut lengthwise, and lay flat to cool. Cut into pieces. Fit pieces together by drizzling molten strips of lead to hold them in place. The artist might use, say, blue glass for background, green for clothes, brown for hair. More intricate details — like folds in the robes or the line of a mouth — are created by scratching or painting the glass. Put it all together, and — voilà! — you’ve created a picture. Imagine the painstaking process of making the glass, fitting the pieces together to make a scene…and then multiply it by a thousand.
In Sainte-Chapelle, medieval worshippers could stand immersed in radiant light. They’d gaze upon the crown, ponder Christ’s sacrifice, see the sunlight pouring in like God’s grace as it illuminates Bible lessons in glass…and get a glimpse of the divine.
This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book, “Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces,” by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Sainte-Chappelle.