Lost In Limoges

From the sheep-dotted pastures of France's underpopulated Southwest, Limoges rises in all its grey glory. The city's claim to fame: fine porcelain. The half-timbered houses of the Medieval center are surrounded by strip malls and McDo. Land-hungry Brits descend with flailing pocketbooks (thanks, RyanAir). The weather is remarkably cool year-round. Sure, I live on rue de Nice, but this is NOT the Cote d'Azur. Welcome to Limoges, "the middle of nowhere"-- or as Pierre says "everywhere"-- France.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Pilgrimage to Sainte-Chapelle

I remember when we first visited Sainte-Chapelle years ago. On a cold January day I dragged Pierre-- the hardened Parisian-- to see this tourist favorite, where he begrudgingly joined the queue outside. Pierre had managed to live for years in Paris without stepping inside the chapel. Paris is so full of these wonders, when you live there, daily life doesn't often include touring the city's treasured symbols, recognizable worldwide. Not that Pierre took it all for granted; he was just busy. (Which just goes to show-- maybe it pays to be a tourist in your own town sometimes...)

Ste-Chapelle is hidden behind the Palais de Justice (Law Courts) and all those big administrative buildings on the Ile de la Cité. And these days you must actually go through security at the Palais. We entered the lower chapel, thinking "What's the big deal?" It's gloomy, dark, and unimpressive. But what do you know? When we walked up the spiral staircase to the upper chapel, the sight took our breath away. Light floods the room (depending on the time of day and the weather), streaming through the stained glass, and I gasped.

The chapel's walls are made entirely of stained glass soaring upward to the vaulted ceilings. Vivid reds and blues soar overhead. The glass is richly detailed with biblical stories and my neck muscles started to ache, craning my neck to follow each story across the panes of glass. If the sun dips behind a cloud, the light fades momentarily and the space temporarily loses its other-worldly effect. But the moment when the sun breaks free again is startling, sacred. This upper chapel was reserved for the royals back in the day. Indeed they even had a separate entrance.

Dating from 1248, the centuries-old Sainte-Chapelle has managed to stand the test of time, still dazzling the faithful who come to pay homage. Louis IX built this exquisite space because he needed someplace special to house his sacred relics (including Christ's Crown of Thorns, purchased from Emperor Baldwin of Constantinople) shown to the common folk on Good Friday every year.


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