Gothic Paris: A City of Stone and Glass

Hidden behind thick walls of stone, medieval Paris hid worlds of colorful glass, painted walls, and gilded decorations. While Notre Dame remains off-limits to tourists as the post-fire restoration works continues, take the opportunity to see one of the most breathtaking examples of medieval stained-glass workmanship. Lying hidden behind the walls of the Palais de Justice, the Sainte Chapelle stands as the greatest achievements of the age.

Started in 1238, the Sainte Chapelle was built by King Louis IX (later Saint Louis) to house his collection of holy relics. Purchased from Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople, these relics supposedly included Christ’s crown of thrones, a piece of the True Cross, and a fragment of the lance which pierced the side of Christ. The king spared no expense at building his new chapel. He spent around 1.12 million dollars (usd 2020) to build that chapel (although that was nothing compared to the 2.8 million he spent on the silver chest to store the relics in). Completed in 10 years, the interior of the upper chapel is dominated by 15 massive stained-glass windows, each 45 feet (15 meters) in height. Telling stories from the Bible, as well as King Louis’s journey to retrieve the relics, these windows were intended to educate the illiterate population, even if the only people who saw them were the educated nobility. The magnificent windows illuminated the space in a dazzling array of colors, playing to the medieval connections between beauty and divinity.

sainte-chapelle
Photo by ParisNB | Roy KIMHI

While the windows today are the most extensive collection of thirteenth century glass anywhere in the world, the centuries have taken their toll. During the French Revolution, much of the interior of the chapel was destroyed, including a third of the original windows. As the Revolution reached its peak during the Terror of 1792-1795, the relics in the chapel disappeared, the statues were torn down, and the survival of the chapel was unsure. Luckily, a group of Parisians organized the Club of the Sainte-Chapelle and saved the chapel from certain destruction, instead turning it into an archive for court records. The chapel continue to serve as an archive until the 1850s when the Romantic Era’s obsession with the medieval demanded it be restored to its former glory. Thanks in large part to Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, public opinion shifted away from the tradition of destroying the old for the new and looked to preserve beautiful pieces of the nation’s past. At the forefront of the new trend for restoration, Sainte-Chapelle was reconstructed as envisioned by the original architects, versus the previous tradition of adapting the interior to contemporary tastes. This new ideology served as a model for other restoration projects throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Restauration work on the chapel has been a continuous process since then. The fear of wartime bombing in the 1940s resulted in a protective layer of varnish being added to the outside of the window, in the hopes of protecting them from dust and scratches. As the years went on however, the varnish began to darken, slowly diminishing the impact the windows had on the viewer. Thankfully today, after a seven year, 10 million euro restoration project, the windows glisten as the beautifully as they did seven centuries ago, serving as an eternal testament to the awe-inspiring devotion of Saint Louis.

If you are in the mood to explore more of medieval Paris, then stop by next door at the Concierge, the former residence of the Kings of France. Built over the ruins of the palace of the Ancient Roman governors, the palace was the used as the royal residence from the fifth century until the fourteenth century, when the royal family decamped to the Louvre palace. The massive complex was continuously expanded on throughout the medieval periods, eventually coming to house not only the royal residences (and those of their guards), but also the royal archives, the treasury, and the courts (which remain in the same location today). While originally the center of royal power in France, the prominence of the Concierge slowly dwindled throughout the Renaissance and under the Bourbon kings. Following a massive flood and several fires, extraordinarily little of the original medieval features remain. While waiting in line to enter the building, be sure to take a look at the Tour de l’Horloge (the Clock Tower) where the first public clock in Paris was installed in 1370.

The original medieval towers surrounded by 19th century facades

As you descend into the building to start your tour, you’ll be amazed at how deep down you have to go to enter the Hall of the Guards and the Hall of the Men at Arms. These large chambers, originally at street level, slowly descended below ground as the surrounding streets were built up to fight against the yearly floods of the Seine. While wandering through the massive halls, take a moment to imagine what it would have been like to see massive roaring fires, tapestry covered walls, and nearly 2,000 people enjoying a royal feast. Be sure to look up and admire the decorative sculptures carved into the massive the columns.

As you continue your tour of the building, you’ll make your way through the eighteenth-century jail cells that house some of the most famous prisoners of the French Revolution. Converted into a jail following a fire in 1776, the cells within the Concierge were defined by the class and wealth system of the ancien régime. Prisoners with a sizeable income could afford to pay for a private cell with a bed, a desk, and various reading and writing materials, while those less fortunate were given a rough bed and perhaps a table to sit at. The poorest of the poor were mercilessly thrown into the oubliettes, the forgotten places, whose damp, dark, and filthy conditions were ripe for plague and other disease outbreaks. They were a truly hopeless place.

The history of the Concierge prison reached its most infamous era during Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. The large size and attachment to the court buildings made the Concierge the perfect place for house any and all enemies of the Revolution. Today you can walk through some of the wealthier prison cells, and contemplate the immense fortunes the prison guards made by taking full month payments for the plush cells, even though they knew the newest occupants would only be there a few short days. Most famously, Marie Antoinette spent the last two months of her life in a cell here, a recreation of which you can see today. The location of Marie Antoinette’s actual cell, as well as the prison’s infirmary, was turned into a chapel by her brother-in-law King Louis XVIII after the end of the Revolution. Although her original cell does not exist, you can still stroll through the Cour des Femmes (Women’s courtyard). Here the female prisoners of the Concierge, including Marie-Antoinette, were permitted to walk, wash their clothes, and eat at the outdoor table, taking in what little fresh air and sunlight they were permitted.

After your contemplation of the horrors unleashed during the Revolution, head over to the Right Bank and take some time to wander through the Marais and see a few of the remaining medieval residences in the city. One of the grandest houses still standing is the Hôtel de Sens. Completed in 1345, the building served as a residence for the archbishops of Sens, as well as number of French royals. Like many of the other surviving medieval structures, the Hôtel de Sens was sold off during the Revolution and spent much of the nineteenth century housing workshops and factories. Restored in the 1930s, today it houses the Forney Art Library. Before you leave, see if you can spot the cannonball lodged in the main façade during the street fights of the 1830 Revolution.

hotel de sens
Hotel de Sens | House of Nicolas Flamel | Source: Wikimedia

If you happen to be a Harry Potter fan, end your tour by stopping at the House of Nicolas Flamel at 51 and 52 Rue Montmorency. While Nicolas Flamel, his wife, and the philosopher’s stone are long gone, the building remains as the oldest house in Paris still standing. Dating from 1407, the Flamel’s originally built it as a shelter for the less fortunate. Today the building houses a restaurant and private residences.

Although the majority of medieval Paris has been lost to history, the few pockets still standing provide an interesting look into centuries past, when knights and ladies were behaving badly, peasants toiled in the fields, and hardly anyone was bathing.



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