The Great Tragedy of Sainte Chapelle

“At its best, religious art will draw a believer to notice something unique or profound, and thus, to worship God.”

I recently had the privilege to travel to Paris, where the top of my must-see list was the Sainte Chapelle. I confess that I love to visit old cathedrals when I travel. I am deeply moved by the intentionality of their artistry and design. The lofty, high architecture reminds me that God is big and I am small. Sun dancing through colored glass gives a heavenly glow, sometimes a shadow, sometimes a halo, sometimes a path to light the way. I love the quiet solemnity of these spaces, where my thoughts can roam on the great narrative of God. But mostly, I love standing in a space where hundreds or thousands of other believers have stood throughout history, to worship our eternal God. These old, old walls offer a connection to the long history of faithful believers, collectively known as “The Church.” In their own times, in their own ways, these unrelated ancestors of mine were captivated by the person of Jesus and longed to follow him as I do.

Sadly, I know that not all those who filled these cathedrals came for holy reasons. The Church (Catholic and otherwise) has always been a den of sinners who, in the mess of trying to understand the Bible and grapple with their own fallen nature, have often hurt brothers and sisters along the way. For some, the beauty of these spaces will be forever tangled in their own heartache, abuse, or misguidance. So I recognize the privilege not only to pilgrimage to these places, but to enjoy them as they were intended to be used.

Since Solomon’s Temple, religious spaces have often been adorned with sacred art. Sometimes this artwork is intended to uplift the soul, to encourage meditation on a holy theme, or to offer insight into a Biblical story. Sure, religious art has been highly controversial within certain denominations and during particular eras of reformation. It’s usually riddled with problems. Besides inaccurate clothing and skin color, sacred art can never quite capture the full picture of any story or idea that it wants to convey. Yet, at its best, religious art will draw a believer to notice something unique or profound, and thus, to worship God.

As an artist myself, I am profoundly affected by striking artwork, so I was eager to see the famous stained glass at Sainte Chapelle. All four walls of the chapel are filled with massive, nearly floor-to-ceiling depictions of stories in the Bible. The building was commissioned in the 13th century by King Louis IX to house holy relics he had purchased, including what was believed to be Jesus’ crown of thorns.

But as I listened to my audio tour, surrounded in the warm glow of the Great Story I have come to cherish, my heart sank.

The Sainte Chapelle was designed as a private chapel.

Once installed by the artisans who crafted them, these glass works of meditation were enjoyed privately by the King and his mother. What’s more, there were several sections of the glass narrative where scholars note how Louis IX wrote himself into the story. In fact, the final panel of glass is not from the Bible at all, but an account of how Louis IX purchased the relics and brought them back to France. In this house of worship, Louis put himself on display instead of his Maker.

Sometimes God blesses individuals with private visions of His beauty—I think of Isaiah’s vision of the throne room or Moses in the cleft of the rock. When building the temple, artisans were specifically called by God to craft metalwork, woodcarving, and garments that may have only been used or seen by the priests in the holiest inner-areas. But from the moment the curtain to the Holy of Holies was torn and God’s Spirit exploded into creation, all Christians have been invited to the table. In the early church, members broke bread together and had all things in common, and when they outgrew family homes and needed to build buildings, the design of those spaces was supposed to draw the participants together like family as they gathered to worship collectively. No longer would an elite few have access to enjoy the presence of God.

I wanted to meditate on the beauty of my Maker displayed in the Sainte Chapelle. But instead, surrounded by some of the most beautiful stained glass in the world, all I felt was sadness. Sadness for Louis IX who missed the point. Sadness for the 13th century Parisians, who were never permitted access to this beautiful artwork. And sadness for the droves of tourists flowing in and out of this space, wildly unaware of a God whose beauty is only fractionally captured by the absolute best that the world’s artists have to offer.

You and I may never have the resources to build ornate cathedrals or commission sacred art, but I do often wonder about the spaces we keep and the treasures we collect. I don't necessarily mean in our churches, but in our homes, our office cubicles, our favorite LA hotspots. Are these places we use to build our own glory or to facilitate the work and praise of our Lord? Do I enjoy the art on my walls or the beauty of our city for the way it feeds my ego or my soul? Will I welcome others into my home out of love and service or to I prefer to protect my private shrine? The Sainte Chapelle begs me to consider.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
—Romans 12:3-10