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July 2002 - The Passion of Louis IX

A visit to the royal chapel in Paris, the Sainte-Chapelle, will invariably impress: the sheets of stained glass that rise like glimmering curtains to join star-studded vaulted ceilings were designed to inspire veneration. And yet the objects of this veneration, the holy relics that had been displayed in the chapel for over five hundred years, were removed over two hundred years ago, casualties of revolutionary fervor and anti-clericalism.

In 1239 Louis IX purchased a number of sacred relics from the Byzantine emperor Baudouin II. Of these, the Crown of Thorns was the most treasured in all of Christendom. When the Crown arrived in Paris, Louis IX organized a grand procession to carry it first to Notre-Dame for a ceremony, and then to the existing royal chapel, Saint-Nicolas. Soon afterwards, the king decided to build a great chapel worthy of storing and displaying the relic: the Sainte-Chapelle, consecrated in 1248.

After the delivery of the Crown, Louis IX negotiated the purchase of other celebrated relics, notably a portion of the True Cross. This relic was accompanied by seven others, including two of the Holy Blood and a piece of the Holy Sepulcher.

In all, Louis IX purchased twenty-two holy relics, which had been collected and stored by Byzantine emperors for centuries. When they arrived in Paris, most were in reliquaries that did not permit viewing without first opening a lid. One of Louis IX's first acts was to order the creation of reliquaries made of crystal that permitted both visibility and safe keeping.

Louis IX also ordered the creation of a Great Shrine for storing the relics. The shrine was placed in the Sainte-Chapelle, but kept locked. It was opened only for special occasions such as private viewings or certain Holy Days and regal celebrations.

Subsequent kings added to the treasury or, in some cases, subtracted from it. The costly Wars of Religion (1562-98) required the melting down of reliquaries and other treasures for the gold that they contained. A statue of the Virgin, cited in an inventory around 1279, and one of Saint Louis, cited in 1336, are only a few examples of the priceless treasures that were sacrificed to pay for war.

The foundation that Louis IX created - for the Sainte-Chapelle was a foundation supported by royal funds specially allocated to pay the salaries of clergy that lived there - came to an end with the Council of State's act of 11 March 1787 abolishing all royal chapels. Louis XVI, the last king of the Old Regime, did his best to transfer many of the treasures out of harm's way. In March of 1791 he ordered the transfer of relics to the royal basilica of Saint-Denis, the transfer of precious stones to the Bureau of Medals, and the transfer of manuscripts to the Royal Library. Unfortunately, the treasury of Saint-Denis was liquidated in 1793 and most of the valuable pieces sent to the foundry. Sainte-Chapelle was damaged by revolutionary mobs in the same year.

A few precious pieces survived this turbulent history. The Crown of Thorns and a piece of the True Cross are now in the possession of the treasury of Notre-Dame cathedral. These relics, as well as a few other surviving pieces, can be viewed in the sacristy from Monday through Saturday. Other pieces, manuscripts and precious items are in the possession of the Louvre, the Bureau of Medals, the Cluny Museum and other museums and organizations.

The royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle was restored to its full splendor (minus its Great Shrine, sent to the foundry in 1792) in the mid-19th century and is open daily to the public. This superb structure has withstood the trials of the ages and endures as a beautiful testimony to the passion that Louis IX had for his faith.

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2002