The One With the Feast Days: Relics of Sainte-Chapelle
Authored by Jilian Hanna, Isabel Davis, and Kate Gottsman for Team Sainte-Chapelle (Jilian Hanna, Isabel Davis, Kate Gottsman, Lauren Mattson, Jordan Stanley, Rebecca Haulk)
In years prior, other teams theorized that the Hargrett Hours belonged to someone associated with Sainte-Chapelle, the royal chapel of Paris’ Palais de la Cité. The Hargrett Hours’ calendar contains feast days distinctive to Sainte-Chapelle. The Hargrett Hours’ auxiliary prayers focus on Christ’s Passion and the Crown of Thorns, which was housed in Sainte-Chapelle. Also, tradition held that the Long Hours of the Passion, a section in the Hargrett Hours, were composed for King Louis IX, the king that commissioned Sainte-Chapelle. Furthermore, the owner of the Hargrett Hours was invested in the Passion of Christ and the Crown of Thorns and had a particular interest in the feast days of Sainte-Chapelle. Our goal this semester was to understand the everyday visitor’s experience in Sainte-Chapelle as to give us a glimpse into the owner’s religious life and interests.
Arrival of the Crown of Thorns
In 1237, Baldwin II (Louis IX’s distant cousin) succeeded as emperor to the Latin Kingdom of Constantinople (a weak polity established in 1204 by the western European crusaders after they conquered Constantinople, rather than Jerusalem, in 1204). There were thousands of relics that the European crusaders sent westward after raiding the store houses in Constantinople. By the time Baldwin II ascended the throne, the Latin Kingdom of Constantinople was reduced to the city itself. To provide defense for the city Baldwin II sold relics to western European countries to raise funds. The Crown of Thorns was given to Louis IX, as he helped Baldwin II settle succession issues and pay off the mortgage to the Venetians. The Venetians were interested in the Crown of Thorns and would have gotten the relic if Louis IX had not helped Baldwin II. Louis IX sent two Dominicans to fetch the relic; however, miscommunication led the relic to be transferred into Venetian control. The relic was placed in Saint Mark’s Cathedral until it was finally transferred to French control. The Crown of Thorns arrived in Villeneuve-l’Archevêque, on the outskirts of Sens (the capital of the archdiocese) and at the edge of the royal domain on August 11th, 1239 – a day that would later become commemorated as the Feast of the Crown of Thorns.
Louis IX and Blanche de Castille were there to greet the relic, holding a week-long ceremony that stretched out between Sens and Paris as they traveled back to Paris. The Crown of Thorns, however, was not received liturgically at Sainte-Chapelle, as the church had not been built yet. Instead, the Crown of Thorns arrived at Notre-Dame. Afterwards, there was a procession to Palais de la Cité, where it is assumed that the relic was kept throughout the 1240’s until Sainte-Chapelle was built. (Gapschokin, 2022).
Before the construction of Sainte-Chapelle, Saint Nicolas was located next to the Palais de la Cité, the future site of Sainte-Chapelle. Saint Nicolas was believed to be too problematic for the great task of hosting the relics of Christ’s Passion, and was subsequently destroyed for two reasons. First, the Chapel of Saint-Nicolas was too small to accommodate the great number of people coming to the chapel to view the Crown of Thorns upon its arrival. Second, the Chapel of Saint Nicolas was not grand enough (Cohen 2008). Around this same time King Louis IX was conducting his crusades, leaving his mother, Blanche of Castile, to watch over the construction of Sainte-Chapelle. Ultimately, Sainte-Chapelle was built to express the image the monarchy wanted to project to the public and to take advantage of the political opportunity presented to King Louis IX. The feast of the Dedication of the Chapel, April 26th, is celebrated on the anniversary of Sainte-Chapelle’s consecration.
The four feast days associated with Sainte-Chapelle are the feast of the Reception of the Crown of Thorns, the feast of the Reception of Relics, the Dedication of the Chapel, and the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The feast of the Reception of the Crown of Thorns corresponds to the day – August 11th, 1239 – the day that the Crown of Thorns arrived in Sens. In both 1241 and 1242, Louis IX would receive the second and third installments of the passion relics (Fragments of the True Cross and a nail). The feast of the Reception of the Relics happens on September 30th, the date that the third installment of relics was delivered. The date in which the second installment of relics came was not suitable as it was the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14th). The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross existed before the dedication of the other feasts but was turned into a local relics feast, as the second installment of relics included parts of the True Cross.
Sainte-Chapelle: Visitor’s Experience and Pilgrimage Site
Part of Sainte-Chapelle’s significance was its function as a pilgrimage site for visitors. All religious pilgrims drawn to the chapel’s beauty would have been able to access it via one door on the main road in the Cour du Roi or the courtyard between the surrounding buildings. From the fourteenth century onwards, merchant stalls surrounded the chapel courtyard and would have attracted visitors to the area, and even brought in people from other countries and cultures as well (Cohen 2008). Because of its rapid growth in recognition and its ability to bring in vast amounts of people, after its establishment, Sainte-Chapelle threatened to overshadow Notre Dame and other French pilgrimage sites, such as Saint-Denis and Sainte-Genevieve (Everist 2023).
Sainte-Chapelle served several functions, but for its visitors, it projected a specific image of King Louis IX to the public and took advantage of the political opportunity that arose for Louis to craft a strategic public image for both himself and his country. Sainte-Chapelle was primarily used for Mass and celebrating particular feast days. The average visitor would have been exposed to propagandistic words and images that helped strengthen Louis’ political image and position as a pious and strong king. This idea shines through again as Louis is depicted on the stained glass, as well as the fleur-de-lis and royal family crests. There are no surviving accounts from any lower class visitors, but one remains from an upper class visitor, who describes walking into the chapel as ascending into one of the chambers of paradise (Cohen 2008).
One ceremony that thirteenth-century visitors may have witnessed was on the eve of Good Friday when King Louis took the Crown of Thorns in hand to show to his court and guests. The image of the King holding the crown of thorns on Good Friday would have been a strategic image to project to those in attendance (Rietbergen 2016). Another similarly significant moment and imagery would also come as visitors may have also witnessed the clear political elements of Sainte-Chapelle’s message through a dedication ceremony where the Crown of Thorns was placed briefly on King Louis’ head (Baltzer 2017). Ceremonies and experiences such as these for visitors would emphasize to viewers the idea that Louis was a pious king blessed and crowned by Christ himself. Overall, the contrasting desires between the pilgrims or other visitors with their motivation to visit the Passion relics for spiritual benefits, and the royal projection of power of the monarchy, created a foundation upon which Sainte-Chapelle would further grow in prominence and recognition.
Where do we go from here?
Well, what do we know about the Hargrett Hours? We know that Sainte-Chapelle feast days are present in the calendar. But we also know that the manuscript doesn’t focus on Louis IX and the royal family. There is a discrepancy between the two, but this doesn’t mean that the manuscript and, more importantly, the owner didn’t have a deep connection with the relics kept in Sainte-Chapelle. There is specific emphasis on Christ’s Passion, which is depicted on the central window in Sainte-Chapelle. So, while we may not know the owner, or if they were directly involved with Sainte-Chapelle, we do know that they revered the relics of Christ’s Passion. Perhaps they were connected to Sainte-Chapelle through the pilgrimages, as mentioned above, or maybe they were a layperson that experienced Sainte-Chapelle on a feast day. But one thing is for sure: this owner was spiritually connected to the relics of Christ’s Passion, a defining feature of Sainte-Chapelle.
Baltzer, Rebecca A. “Notre-Dame and the Challenge of the Sainte-Chapelle in Thirteenth-Century Paris.” Chant, Liturgy, and the Inheritance of Rome: Essays in Honour of Joseph Dyer, Henry Bradshaw Society, 2017, pp. 489–523.
Cohen, Meredith. “An Indulgence for the Visitor: The Public at the Sainte-Chapelle of Paris.” Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies, vol. 83, no. 4, Oct. 2008.
Gapschokin, Cecelia M. Vexilla Regis Glorie: Liturgy and Relics at the Sainte-Chapelle in the Thirteenth Century. CNRS Éditions, Paris, 2022.
Everist, Mark. “Liturgy and Sequences of the Sainte-Chapelle: Music, Relics, and Sacral Kingship in Thirteenth-Century France.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 76, no. 1, Mar. 2023.
Leniaud, Jean-Michel, and Françoise Perrot. La Sainte Chapelle. Paris: Nathan/CNMHS, 1991.
Rietbergen, Peter. “Sacralizing the Palace, Sacralizing the King: Sanctuaries and/in Royal Residences in Medieval Europe.” Monuments & Memory: Christian Cult Buildings and Constructions of the Past: Essays in honour of Sible de Blaauw. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016. 209-220.