July 2015 Print

La Sainte-Chapelle and the Crusades

by Dr. Marie-France Hilgar

The Sainte-Chapelle, located within the Palais de Justice complex on the Ile de la Cité is a diminutive yet perfect example of the Rayonnant Style of Gothic Architecture. It was erected by Louis IX, king of France, to house the Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross, precious relics of the Passion. Louis had purchased them in 1239 from the Byzantine Emperor Beaudoin II for the exorbitant sum of 135,000 livres (the chapel only cost 40,000 livres to build). Two years later, more relics were brought. Louis commissioned the Sainte-Chapelle to serve as a reliquary casket enlarged to an architectural scale. In the flamboyant thinking of the 13th century, the idea was to elevate the Kingdom of France to be the leader of Western Christianity. The original plan of the Chapel dates from 1241. After breaking ground in January 1246, the Sainte-Chappelle was rapidly constructed, and completed April 25, 1248. The structure is 118 ft. long, 56 ft. wide and 139 ft. in height.

Fronted by a two-story porch, the Sainte-Chapelle has the emphatically vertical proportions of Gothic architecture which had been perfected during the 12th century. The architectural model is that of a building with a single nave culminating in a chevet with seven panels. Outside the design concentrates on the essentials—a sober base and heavy buttresses contrasting with the lightness of the upper parts. The slate roof is dominated by a spire made of cedar, 108 feet high, a masterpiece of finesse, made in the 19th century, but the exact replica of the 15th-century piece.

The lower chapel is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Low vaulted ceilings rest on fine columns. The walls are decorated with trifold arcades and 12 medallions representing the Apostles. Fleurs de lys are on an azure background. The towers are an homage to Blanche de Castile, St. Louis’s mother. The vaulted ceiling is painted to resemble star-filled heavens. The floor contains tombstones of important reverends. The lower chapel used to be reserved for palace staff.

The upper chapel is resplendent in its Gothic architecture—light, color, and space blend to inspire a sense of harmony between art and religious faith. This part of the building was reserved for the King, his close friends and family, as well as for displaying the religious relics. Supported by slender piers, the vaulted ceilings seems to float over magnificent stained glass windows. Most significant of the sculpted decorations are the statues of the 12 Apostles, which lean on the columns marking the bays. Their finely featured faces impart a sense of serenity in all who contemplate them.

The Sainte-Chapelle is renowned for its richly hued stained-glass windows comprising 6,456 square feet in area. Two-thirds of the pieces are original works representing the finest examples of 12th-century craftsmanship. Reds and blues are the dominant colors, in contrast with 15th-century western rose windows. In these panes the full biblical story of humanity is recounted, from the Creation to Redemption through Christ.

Over the centuries, the Sainte-Chapelle suffered the vicissitudes of time. It was damaged by fire in 1630 and again in 1776. The stained-glass windows of the lower chapel were removed following a flood when then Seine overflowed in 1690. Perceived as a symbol of both religion and royalty, the Sainte-Chapelle suffered considerable damages during the French Revolution. Its fur­niture and rood screen disappeared. The organ was transported to Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois. The spire was knocked down, the tympanums damaged, the holy relics scattered. Most of the statues were saved.

Following a period of disaffection, in 1803 the stained-glass windows were stored in a two-meter space in order to use the building as a repository for the state’s archives. Starting in 1837, significant restoration was undertaken and by 1868 the Sainte-Chapelle was returned to its previous splendor. The stained-glass windows were removed during World War II in anticipation of the German invasion of Paris. Following the war every piece was meticulously replaced. While some of the relics were never to be found again, others are today kept in the treasure of the Notre Dame Cathedral and at the National Library.

Louis IX, king of France, better known as Saint-Louis since his canonization by Pope Boniface VIII in 1297, twenty-seven years after his death, is best known for his immense piety, his sense of justice, and his kindness. The sixth Crusade led by Frederic II, an excommunicated emperor, had been a huge success. Without shed­ding any blood, the emperor had negotiated by treaty in 1229 the restitution of Jerusalem. The treaty remained in force until 1244. Afterwards, any pilgrim wanting to pray at Our Lord’s grave was risking his life. Because of his love for Our Lord, because he could not stand the idea that pilgrims were being massacred, Louis decided to take action.

Through Louis’s meticulous planning, the seventh Crusade was the most carefully prepared of all the Crusades to the East when he embarked at Aigues-Mortes on August 25, 1248. Louis had decided to attack Egypt rather than going on a campaign in the Holy Land itself. It made sense: it was in accordance with a general change of strategy since the third Crusade, because of the wealth and importance of Egypt within the Ayyu-bid Empire established by Saladin. If Egypt could be taken, then the Latin East could be restored much more easily.

Louis landed in Cyprus on September 17, and his army gradually became ready. The Sultan of Egypt had gone with most of his troops to Syria, attacking the ruler of Aleppo. But Louis was aware of the fact that the forces available to him were limited in numbers, 15,000 according to some sources, including 2500 Knights Templar. Because of political turmoil in Germany and in Italy, very few men from those two countries had joined. If Louis were to take Egypt, he would need every man available. He decided to wait until the end of May 1249 before sailing for Damietta.

On June 6, 1249, Damietta was captured with minimal losses. When entering Damietta, the king sang the Te Deum. He also forbade the killing of any infidel taken prisoner and arranged to have classes available to any of them showing an interest in the True Religion. The Egyptians were in disarray while crusader morale was high. Perhaps Louis should have pushed on to Cairo, but the Nile flood, which had contributed to the destruction of the fifth Crusade, was imminent. Louis also was expecting reinforcements from France. He advanced toward Cairo on November 20, 1249. He and his army proceeded slowly down the Damietta branch of the Nile until they were forced to halt opposite Mansur, where most of the Egyptian forces were, and the Crusaders were unable to bridge the waterway. After weeks of waiting, an unguarded ford downstream was discovered and on February 8, 1250, some of the Crusaders led by Louis’s brother crossed the river.

Louis had instructed that once across, his brother Robert d’Artois should wait until the rest of the army could join him, but Robert, against everybody’s advice, decided not to wait and led himself and his men to their destruction in the streets of Mansur. Louis arrived with the main army and scored a victory, but a costly one. It was his last success and a critical turning point. Louis had lost too many men to try to advance. The sultan of Egypt was back in Cairo and temporarily dominated the dissident factions. Supply ships from Damietta were intercepted, and before long the crusaders were suffering from disease and famine. Louis perhaps delayed too long ordering a retreat. For eight weeks the army held out while disease took its toll. On April 5, the retreat began. Refusing the pleas of others to protect himself by fleeing, Louis remained to lead his soldiers and was captured with many others as the Muslim forces closed in. Half way to Damietta, Louis surrendered. The king and nobles were held for ransoms while many non- noble captives were killed. During his captivity, the king recited the Divine Office every day with two chaplains and had the prayers of the Mass read to him. His great Crusade had failed totally. And Cairo might have fallen if it had not been for Robert’s behavior. The queen managed with great courage to secure sufficient food and to persuade the Italians not to evacuate Damietta until it could be ceded formally by treaty and the king’s ransom arranged.

Louis showed his remarkable commitment following his release from captivity on May 6, 1250, on payment of half his enormous ransom, and the surrender of Damietta. He sailed to Acre and remained in the East for another four years acting to strengthen the security of the Latin kingdom. He negotiated a treaty with Egypt in 1252 and a truce with Damascus and Aleppo in 1254. He also worked on the liberation of those Christians still held captive. He embarked on a massive program to improve the Kingdom’s defenses. He rebuilt the fortifications of Acre, Caesarea, Sidon and Jaffa. His mother, Blanche de Castille, whom he had appointed regent during his absence, had died on November 21, 1252. The kingdom was in stable condition and could very well continue without king nor regent, but it was time for Louis to return. He finally sailed for home on April, 24, 1254, when he felt he could do no more. He left behind a force of one hundred knights to reinforce the garrison of Acre, the start of a French Royal Regiment in the Holy Land, which remained until 1286. It was plain that Louis had every intention of returning in person to try again to liberate the holy places.

Louis kept very much in touch with the fate of the Latin East and continued to wear the Cross on his shoulder to show his intention of going back to succor the Eastern Christians. In 1260, after murdering his predecessor, Baybars became sultan of Egypt. Though this “famous” Mameluke sultan did not live to see the fall of the Latin States, he had reduced them to a few coastal outposts. Baybars was ruthless. Most of his conquests were followed by a general massacre of the inhabitants, including, of course, the native Christians. In 1265 he took Caesarea, Haifa and Arsulf. The following year he conquered Galilee and devastated Cilician Armenia. In 1268 Antioch was taken and all the inhabitants slaughtered. The great hospitaler fortress of the Krak des Chevaliers fell three years later. These disasters again brought pleas for aid from the West. King Louis once again took up the Cross.

Louis informed Pope Clement IV of his intention in late 1266, then gathered the French nobles on March 24, 1267. The response was not enthusiastic. He finally gathered 12,000 men. Louis, once more, planned very carefully, insuring that he would receive tax money, get­ting Genoa and Marseille to supply thirty-nine vessels. He left Aigues-Mortes on July 2, 1270, for a rendez­vous at Cagliari, Sardinia, where he an­nounced that Tunis was his target. Soon after though, on August 25, 1270, at a fort constructed on the site of ancient Carthage, Louis IX died, vic­tim of the dysentery or typhus that had been sweeping through the army in the intense summer heat. He had received Extreme Unction and had himself laid out on a bed of ashes. It is said that his last words, after commending his spirit to God, were: “O Jerusalem! O Jerusalem.” It emphasizes the fact that no man was more de­voted than he to the liberating of the Holy Land. O Jerusalem! How he must have regretted never being able to enter the city where Christ was entombed.