Search This Blog

Monday, October 4, 2010

Paris III: La Rive Droite and Sainte Chapelle

On our last full free day in Paris before the river cruise begins, our traveling companions are taking a tour of the Musèe d’Orsay, and we decide to walk the St. Germain de Près shopping district and meet them in the early afternoon at the pyramid of the Louvre.  My spouse is intent on antique shopping, although we cannot seem to agree whether the only antique we bought on our last trip didn’t come from the Marais.  We have already walked a good deal of the shopping near to this district several days ago on our way back for Le Jardin de Luxembourg, so we are fairly businesslike until we get to Èglise Sainte-Sulpice, and then we start to amble among the high class stores there.  In fact, very few antique shops are in evidence, but there are lots of nice boutiques of every other type.  England may be a nation of shopkeepers, but we like the French ones.  We pass the Deux Magots  (the Two Magi, there are no larvae in the food!) where we had a lovely lunch a decade ago while an oompah band performed across the street.  No famous philosophers were in evidence then either.  I am thrilled to learn, however, that absinthe is back on the market after almost a century of disrepute.  But it is too near mid-day when we arrive to indulge my fantasies of fin de siècle decadence.  In fact, we wind up hurrying away from this area to rendezvous with our friends when they have finished their tour.  

The two Chinese commercial agents that give Les Deux Magots its name.  a particular favorite of John Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as Picasso, Hemingway and others.  Now it is the particular favorite of teaming hoards of tourists like us.
When we meet, they are simply raving about their tour guide.  We have yet to partake of an organized tour of anything, but our companions’ enthusiasm is influential, and we will opt for most of the optional tours on our trip.  Unlike many cruise lines, our cruise includes tours every day, but there are also optional ones for an extra fee.  These are usually accompanied by native French tour guide.  With 80 million visitors a year, France is leaving nothing to chance in the interpretation of her culture.  Tour guides are all licensed by a government agency and we found them to be gracious and very knowledgeable.  After reading this, you will see that I have latent tour guide tendencies, but must first polish up my language skills if I wish to do it in French!  

This Arch is smaller and less famous than the one a Place D'Etiole, and is dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte for his victories in 1806-1808.  The other one was commissioned at the same time, took thirty years to build, and was so grand that after World War I ended, someone flew a bi-plane through it!  This one stands where the Tuilleries Palace used to, and is of more modest scale.  The statue of Peace riding a Chariot constitutes posthumous defeat for Napoleon.  After defeating the Austrians and annexing Venice, the French swiped the horses from St. Marks Cathedral and put them here.  After Waterloo, The Bourbons returned the horses and in 1828 had this statue placed on top instead to commemorate their restoration.  Perhaps it is called 'carrousel' because what goes around comes around?

 After our rendezvous, we go for a walk under Napoleon's first triumphal arch, l'Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and into Le Jardin de Tuilleries, dodging hawkers and beggars as we go.  Particularly impressive are the legions of Balkan refugees all sporting alarmingly similar appearing leg casts.  They all start by asking if you speak English!  I didn’t know we were that obvious, but to a trained eye, I guess we are.  And trained eye is the operative term; if you arrive early enough any morning you can see them marching out together and receiving assigned begging territories from their handlers. This is a thoroughly professional cadre of beggars. There are also legions of black Africans, none of whom are begging, but all are selling cheap trinkets, mostly shiny metallic models of the Eiffel Tower, or sunglasses.  We settle on a gallaterie under carefully manicured chestnuts and have a lunch of beer and crepes before retracing our path past the Ferris wheel (worked so well in London I guess they had to try setting one up in the Tuilleries!), a state fair mid-way mall full of rigged games we know better than to play (this tacky excursion being necessitated by careful bathroom placement—an added indignity, French public restrooms are often operated as a concession—it costs .20 € to go!).  Then we take a tacky walk down Rue Tivoli.  All along the north side of the Louvre it is a mile-long tourist trap as could easily be found in Gatlinburg, Key West, or Virginia Beach.

This was an prominent landmark at night from our hotel room window three miles away next to Gare Montparnasse.  It is taken down for the winter.
Our destination is Isle de la Citè and Sainte Chapelle.  For me, this is the one must-revisit attraction from our previous trip, even though the day is clouding over.  Sainte Chapelle is actually nestled in a rather unlikely place, the Conciergerie, which was, for several centuries, a notorious prison.  Marie Antoinette and Danton were lodged here in some of its better quarters as they awaited executions for treason from the Convention and Directory during the French Revolution.  Later, Napoleon III would be incarcerated here by the restored Bourbon monarchy.  Now it is Le Palais de Justice, part of the headquarters for the French police. 

The Conciergerie as depicted in a masterpiece of the Northern Renaissance, Les Tres Riches Heurs du Duc de Berry.  It is essentially an illuminated day planner.  It is called a book of hours because of the canonical hours; matin, lauds and vespers, etc in which the faithful were expected to pray.

But in the 13th century the Conciergerie served as a royal palace, and King (later Saint) Louis IX built Sainte Chapelle to house the brand new Crown of Thorns and various other relics purchased at pawn from Venice which had taken them as collateral from returning crusaders.  They had rescued it from the 'imminent' fall of Constantinople--Byzantium was in decline due to the depredations of the Seljuk Turks at that time, but didn't actually fall til 1453.   

I must confess that my first reaction was sarcastic:  “Like, the Real Crown of Thorns?”  After 1300 years, how sure could you be?  Did they even know Jesus’ hat size?  But the early Christians had long venerated anything to do with the Passion of Christ.   The Pope certified to the authenticity of these holy relics, and Louis was utterly serious; his goal was nothing less than saving the church by making Paris a spiritual center to replace Byzantium and vie with Rome.   He would go on to be sainted for his efforts, the only monarch to achieve Sainthood.   He is the source of the name for St. Louis Missouri, as well as St Louis Obispo and countless other like-named places around the world.  And the Crown of Thorns now resides in Notre Dame de Paris just down the street in a reliquary that is anything but understated!

If you have the Crown of Thorns, pruned or not, you cannot just put it anywhere!  This reliquary is in Notre Dame de Paris and was made long after its sojourn at Sainte Chapelle.
My cynicism is not entirely misplaced.  Sainte Chapelle was seriously damaged and some of the lesser reliquaries melted down during the Revolution.  The Crown of Thorns itself has undergone some dis-assembly and some of the thorns were given out to various other Cathedrals.  But the attraction of Sainte Chapelle, for me, is the stained glass.  Fortunately most of this glorious work was carefully preserved during the Revolution, and taken down and preserved again during World War II, so that 70% of the glass work is original.  Although the chapel is small, the glass is delicately set in light, soaring stonework and is far more beautiful than Notre Dame de Paris, or the other churches we are yet to see in our travels.  This is the religious high point for me, a dedicated agnostic.  In vying for leadership of a faltering Christian (Rome had been sacked and the Church was struggling with the schism that resulted in the Eastern Orthodox Church) community, Louis has commissioned some of the most beautiful Christian art ever.  The stained glass tells the classic Old and New Testament stories, and recounts the history of the relics Louis acquired for worship there.

Taken from the roof, this exterior view doesn't make Sainte Chapelle look as out of place in the Palais de Justice as it does from the street.
On a sunny day, the light through these windows far outshines the Crown Jewels.  There are only 6 colors; ruby, sapphire, pale green, yellow and violet and clear.  But the effect emerging into the chapel from below by a dark and narrow winding stair is overpowering.  On a cloudy one like the day of our visit, they are merely spectacular.  Unlike most of the major Gothic cathedrals, Sainte Chapelle was executed by one architect over a three-year period, an astonishingly short span compared to the other building programs that often extended over more than 100 years and saw a progression of styles.  So it has a unified style and cohesive artistic vision, a rare thing in Gothic architecture.  Much of this must be attributed to careful restoration.  We will learn just how fragile these achievements are as we encounter other evidence of the Wars of Religion, and of the Revolution later in Normandy and Burgundy.

This area was being restored during our visit and we could not view any of it.  This beautiful photo does as much justice as fine photography can to a breathtaking experience.
The colors were all from metallic salts added to the glass itself, mostly iron, copper, cobalt and gold.  They were also painted, but generally not to add color.

On the day of our visit, the entire nave is obscured by scaffolding.  It is undergoing another restoration.  It had begun to rain lightly as we waited in line, which was actually refreshing given the heat.  However, after an hour within, I find myself leaving sadly, and wondering how many times I will be able to return to this glorious place before I die.  Whenever it comes, it will be sad to leave for the last time.  Whenever that visit comes?  Death comes?


  1. It is always fun to come back to your blog. It is a pleasure to read it and see it, and I always learn something new. Today I had learned all this stuff about Louis IX. I got to brush up on my medieval history--not one of my strong points.

    I also remember visiting Sainte Chapelle for the first time. It is truly awesome. I was lucky to be able to see it without scaffolding. I didn't go the second time. Now you make me think that I should have gone. Well, there is going to be another time . . . for me--I am sure of that as much as one can be reasonably sure of such things. There will be another time for you, too.


  2. As you know, Ana, I am a rationalist with no religious faith. The role religion has played in Western civilization is very complicated and central. For me, this is a high point. We will get to some of the low points in due time.

    But there is no denying its role in the creation of transcendent art. For me, this is the finest stain glass work I have ever seen. Of course, I still have many places yet to go! If it takes a Crown of Thorns or a desire to out do Byzantium to achieve this, surely such motives were ever turned to less elevating purposes!