The Radiance of Sainte Chapelle
`WHY do they make such narrow, winding stairways? Plus these tiny steps! And this, all so early in the morning!'' These were but a few of the unhappy remonstrances of our overseas visitor as she slowly mounted the spiral staircase that leads to the Sainte Chapelle. This small, Gothic reliquary was built on the ^Ile de la Cit'e in Paris by Louis the Saint, to house the Crown of Thorns that he had retrieved from the Holy Land. The chapel looks very much as it did when it was completed in 1248. Our guide, Leo Tolstoy, 'emigr'e nephew of the Russian novelist, briefed us on this medieval style which had its origins here in this part of Europe.
``Gothic architecture first made its appearance here in northern France at a time when theology was the queen of the sciences and religious fervor engaged whole generations with the theme of immortality so that the main interest in this life was to prepare for the next; which meant, in addition to the cure of their souls, also doing good works here so as to obtain for themselves a better place in heaven.''
Tolstoy explained how spiritual longing was the driving force of medieval humanity. Christians from different walks of life - from prince to pauper - shared this yearning and worked together in a collective effort, devoting both time and labor to building many of the great cathedrals and churches of this area. Though this 12th- and 13th-century society was highly stratified - all very ``undemocratic'' by our 20th-century standards - there was no doubt in the people's minds that they were all equals in the eyes of God, each man free to obtain the place that he could obtain for himself in heaven.
Tolstoy made the scene more vivid as he described how the nobles - both men and women - joined those of lesser status, bending their proud and haughty necks, chaffing under harnesses - as beasts of burdens - pulling the tombereaux, two-wheeled peasant wagons, over unpaved roads. Some of these carts were heavy with quarried stone destined for the ``abodes of Christ,'' while others contained wood, wheat, wine, oil - all articles necessary for the life that went on in the construction of churches.
The glazier too set up his kiln here and toiled along with the others singing hymns and invoking la tr`es Sainte Vierge and the names of saints as he added pigment to stain his glass, thus obtaining colors that subsequent generations have found difficult to reproduce.
The exact origin of this style remains obscure, as does the techniques and methods of these medieval architects. How were they able to calculate the loads that the pillars and arches of these large churches would have to support and are still supporting some 800 years later?
Tolstoy ended his discourse by placing a question before us just as we were entering this chapel, dazzled with the effect of the high multicolored windows. He asked us to judge if we thought these medieval Christians had obtained a better place for themselves in the next world in recognition of their materially-unrewarded labors in this?
Now, our lady tourist, though used to asking questions, was not accustomed to answering them, so at first she paid little heed to our cicerone's request as she continued scaling these ancient steps in-voking the name of her travel agent who, she assured us all, would hear about this ``outrage''!
As she reached the last step, the discordant note of her remonstrances trailed off ... and she stopped in her tracks, her gaze rising - a very natural reaction in a Gothic church - first to the lacelike east window aglow in the morning sun, and then to the sides, as the walls seemed to dissolve.
The impact of the centuries opened to her with the story of man's joys and tribulations retold in radiant pictures - most medieval Christians could not read - and kept alive for those who took the time to look. Her discomfort was suddenly replaced by a distracted joy!
It was only then that Tolstoy's question began to register. She could not believe what she saw! She was not prepared for this outburst of radiance and when she opened her mouth, words failed her. And before she could speak, she had covered her eyes with her hands and was weeping.
This incident lasted but a few minutes (for she soon composed herself) and no further mention was made of this or any inconvenience she had experienced. Later in the course of his explanations, Tolstoy commented that tears were considered fine and honorable in many societies.
So, as the journey continued this lady became one of the most considerate members of the group, helpful, kind, and understanding. Though she had been near a mystic experience, when she dried her eyes the complete transformation had not yet taken place.
Still this encounter with the past had made her aware of the beauty of her surroundings and she began speaking of pilgrims and churches in a subdued voice. For this sudden impact with the Middle Ages in this small expanse of the Sainte Chapelle had brought home to her the intimate blend between the past and the present, a blend that made her see that she too was a small but intricate part of Western civilization.
And so is it with many who have progressed to this small island in the center of Paris. For here the Middle Ages still proclaim their message of continuity. The message comes to many as a crescendo in the mighty expanse of Notre Dame, whose north window dating from 1255 is today intact, while to others it comes more softly, yet no less forcefully in the intimate delicacy of this jeweled shrine. Once reserved for royalty, Sainte Chapelle is open to all.