Beauty and Terror: Sainte Chapelle and the Conciergerie

As I’ve mentioned before, the center of ancient Gallic and Roman Paris was the island in the middle of the Seine River known as the Île de la Cité, and not surprisingly for symbolic and practical reasons when the city became the capital of the kingdom of France, the royal palace was located there. The Conciergerie, a mishmash of Medieval towers and rooms, and much more recent buildings is a relic of that palace.

Sainte Chapelle, which I think most Americans would perhaps recognize by sight even if they don’t know its name or where it’s located, was the royal chapel of the palace, constructed on the orders of our city’s namesake, St. Louis, or King Louis IX.

I was suspicious of the chapel, having read that it was a huge tourist trap, and I also knew that it had apparently been “heavily restored” by Eugène Viollet-Le-Duc, who “fixed” many of France’s most important monuments so much that some of them are now considered Gothic and Gothic Revival!

However, I was pleasantly surprised. The chapel is a beauty, and while he did do some restoration, I feel like the historic structure and its patina is still intact. Yes, it is crowded, but not unbearably so. Despite some negative reviews of the staff, I found them courteous but no nonsense.

And more importantly, visitors get to see that yes, Gothic interiors were painted! They were not gray limestone covered with soot the day they opened seven hundred years ago. The churches of St. Louis with their intricate paint schemes are more accurate to the original intent of Medieval architects than the Modernist bare walls of so many European sanctuaries today.

The stained glass windows work with the painted interiors, not in competition. Is it 100% accurate? That can only be answered with the invention of a time machine.

I thought there was just enough patina and restoration to make it feel like I was looking at something authentic, but what do I know? It was a memorable visit.

The confines of these courtyards are still important to French government so we asked for directions from some machinegun-toting guards and before we knew it we were entering the confines of the Conciergerie, which featured prominently in the French Revolution.

As we saw in the first photos, the overall mass of the building dates from the late Nineteenth Century, but much of the interior and lower rooms are from the Medieval era, such as these guard rooms. I was struck by the ingenuity of the staircase below.

I was also intrigued by how French museums handled difficult subjects, such as the Terror, which is when thousands of French aristocrats and tens of thousands of former peasants were killed after kangaroo courts sentenced them to death after trials that often lasted less than an hour. I was also interested in how changes in government can lead to different interpretation of events, such as when the Bourbon kings retook control of France after the defeat of Napoleon. The rehabilitation of the reign of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette was of particular interest during the so-called Restoration, and the cell where the queen was held before her execution was turned into a chapel, which you can see below. Of course, when the Second Republic was established, such shrines were threatened, and then Napoleon III seized control in a coup, and then the Third Republic was established, and so on. Nowadays, the historic value of these rooms save them from removal.

Outside, this was the courtyard where women prisoners were allowed to go for exercise. The museum exhibits do a good job of giving a balanced view of just what happened here. Did you know that Marie Antoinette was accused by the Revolution of being a child molester? It careened into the absurd. And no, she never said, “Let them eat cake;” that was written by Rousseau a generation before her birth.

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