On my first solo trip to Paris, in 1968, I carried a list of the things not to be missed. At the top was Sainte Chapelle, the small medieval church famous for its exquisite stained-glass windows, the oldest in Paris. Described in guidebooks, as “a Gothic marvel” and “a great joy”, confirmed by friends, saying La Chapelle was simply too beautiful for words, they couldn’t possibly describe it, I just had to see it for myself.
Not that summer. French students were rioting, public transportation was shut down, and parts of the city were under siege.
Four years later I stopped for only one day on my way home. It was far too short a time to see anything of the city, so I decided to visit just one place-Sainte Chapelle.
I knew from friends that the best time to see the windows was in the morning, preferably a cloudless one. The weather was perfect, so I strolled up to the iron gates of the Palais de Justice. Sainte Chapelle was tucked away in the inner courtyard. I could see the spire above me and as I rounded a corner the whole church came into view.
Its stone looked golden in the sunlight. Pillars and buttresses supporting a series of stained-glass windows that rose fifty feet to Gothic arches and a roof with filigree trim. What must those windows look like from inside? I realized that there were so few other visitors at this hour that I’d have the chapel almost to myself.
In fact, there were no other visitors. It was closed. Closed on Tuesday, the sign said. Tuesday? I checked my guidebook. Tlj sf Mar. Impenetrable before, it suddenly made sense: tous les jours sauf mardi.
So, a few years later, I tried again. This time I’d carefully checked the schedule. Open from 10 A.M. to 5:45 P.M. (4:45 P.M. from October through March) every day except Tuesday and certain national holidays. It was 11:30. It wasn’t Tuesday. It wasn’t Christmas, New Year’s, May Day, or All Saint’s Day and there was even an occasional flash of sun from between scuttling clouds. Hurrah, there was a line at the ticket window I was going to get in at last. When I got closer I noticed a small sign that explained that the chapel was closed, and only the ground floor, or crypt, was open.
I sighed, paid, and saw the crypt, with its floor of tombstones, and its counter of souvenir books and postcards, some with pictures of the chapel above.
I knew that in the past people had gotten into the chapel. After all, my own friends and family had seen it and convinced me that to miss it would be to miss one of the profound experiences of life. I couldn’t believe they’d made it up. If I needed additional evidence that admission was sometime granted, there was the painting by Pierre-Denis Martin titled “Louis XV Sourtant du Lit de Justice Tenu au Palais le 12 Septembre 1715” and showed the king emerging from the chapel. I swore to see it myself on my next trip even if it meant calling the Minister of Culture himself.
But when I next returned to Paris, it rained every day, and after all the waiting, I certainly didn’t want to see it in the gloom.
In the autumn of 1984 I returned for a week. Confident that with that much time I’d surely have my chance. Over the years I’d adopted a philosophical approach: I love Paris, and I’ll keep coming back until I see the famous windows. It had become a character test: How great is your determination and perseverance?
I dashed over to the Sainte-Chapelle my first day in town. I didn’t even make it through the gate. It was Thursday, November 1, All Saints’ Day, the chapel, needless to say, was closed. But the guard outside the Palais de Justice assured me that it had been open yesterday and tomorrow would be business as usual.
I went back the next morning. The gate was open, and the faces of the people coming toward me out of the inner courtyard betrayed no disappointment, though none of the ecstasy I’d been led to expect. Attached to the entrance of the church were sings in French and English that explained why.
“The great interest in this edifice, which continues to attract larger and larger crowds of people, has brought about a noticeable change in the humidity level of the interior,” it said. “The restoration of the wall paintings . . . is now underway.” It was their winter project, postponed for decades until that very day!
Then, the following spring, I arrived to spend ten weeks in the city. I did not even schedule Sainte Chapelle for a visit. Instead, I decided to be devious, to sneak up on it, simply drop by someday and catch it unawares.
Six weeks passed, then eight. I still hadn’t made my move. One week left in Paris. Sunday, mid-afternoon, sun shining, during lunch our client ask me if there was anything I wanted to see, or do, before I left. I told him my Sainte Chapelle saga. Lunch finished he grabbed my hand and we veered across the river to the Ile de la Cite.
“Is it open? The whole thing?”
“Yes,” he replied. “All open.”
I shut my eyes as I entered and reminded myself that great expectations often lead to great disappointments. There was the movie that people told me would change my life and the restaurant I’d looked forward to for so long that it didn’t have a chance of being all I’d hoped. And experience had taught me that sometimes it’s better not to meet the person you’ve admired from afar. Would this be the same kind of thing? At this point the chapel would almost have to be a preview of heaven to justify its advance billing and my doggedness.
So it was with a certain skepticism that I opened my eyes. My heart was beating faster. Was it the anticipation? Or was it in fact, the first view of those luminous windows, the light flooding the room with rich color, making it almost seem to float.
No hyperbole. It really was all that had been promised. But I’m afraid there are no words that can do it justice. You simply have to see it for yourself.