Finding St. Louis de France in Europe

As I noted in my last post on St. Louis de France, he keeps appearing in my travels. Sometimes I have sought him out but more often he just appears, pointed out by a guide book or tour guide. While I don’t know why this happens, here in Europe is where I have encountered St. Louis de France the most—and how.

San Luigi dei Franchesi 

In 2001 we took a walking tour while visiting Rome. After taking us through the Pantheon, our tour guide turned left and headed for the Piazza Navona. While walking down the Via del Salvatore, he mentioned that the building on the left had been a stock exchange.

San Luigi dei Franchesi, Rome, St. Louis or the French. Caravaggio, St. Matthew

San Luigi dei Franchesi

“What about the one on the right?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s a church,” he said dismissively. (Rome has a lot of churches.) Our guide continued, “It has some paintings by Caravaggio.”

Say no more. I love the work of the Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio, so the next morning we headed back to see his three enormous paintings on the life of St. Matthew.

Finding Caravaggio

Before entering the church, I looked up to see the name:  San Luigi dei Francesi, or St. Louis of the French. Designed by Giacomo della Porta, the church was completed in 1589.

Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Franchesi, Rome, Caravaggio, St. Matthew

The Contarelli Chapel

All the statues on the façade depict French figures, including Charlemagne and Joan of Arc, which is fitting for the national church of France in Rome.

The paintings did not disappoint, although the Contarelli Chapel on the front left side of the church is so dark visitors have to put a few coins into a box to activate lights. Only then can you see full beauty of “The Calling of St. Matthew,” (left wall), “The Inspiration of St. Matthew (center), and “The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (right wall).

St. Louis des Chartrons in Bordeaux

St. Louis de France, St. Louis de Chartrons, Bordeaux, Viking River Cruise

St. Louis in Bordeaux

I found the holy king again in Bordeaux, while on our first Viking River Cruise in 2015. The tour guide on our morning excursion mentioned the church by name and there he was again. I headed back after the tour ended to see the interior. How could I not?

St. Louis des Chartrons (a district of Bordeaux north of the old town) lured me in for an hour or so as I checked out its Neo-Gothic construction and decoration. It was built from 1874-79 on the site of a previous chapel and designed by local architect Pierre-Charles Brun. Some of the masterworks from the old church were preserved for use in this one, including the pulpit, the confessionals and Cuba mahogany paneling in the sacristy.

Stained Glass Masterworks

While St. Louis des Chartrons lacks anything as spectacular as three Caravaggio paintings, the skylight of the north transept shows St. Louis wearing the relics of the crown of thorns. In the south transept, he is shown leaving for the Seventh Crusade. They were made by master glazier Joseph Villiers of Bordeaux. Now the church houses the biggest symphonic organ of the Aquitaine region and is the site of year-round organ concerts.

A statue of the sainted king also stands in the rear. So, there St. Louis was again, seeming to appear wherever I went.

The St. Louis Chapel in St Germain en Laye

I saw only the outside of this one. We toured St. Germain en Laye on a Monday, when museums are closed. The St. Louis Chapel is part of the Châteax Vieux (Old Castle) complex, which houses the National Museum of Archaeology. So, we could look from the outside but not go in.

St Louis Chapell, St Germain en Laye, Louis IX, St Louis de France

The St. Louis Chapel in St. Germain en Laye

The architect, Pierre de Montreuil, built the Chapelle in the Rayonnant Gothic style, which took Gothic architecture’s focus on levels of illumination to such an extreme it presents the appearance of structural lightness.

In the Rayonnant style, architects pierced more of the wall surface than ever before with windows and often used lace-like tracery screens on a building’s exterior to hide the bulk of load-bearing wall elements and buttresses.

Rayonnant Gothic architecture also concerned itself with the decorative possibilities of two-dimensional surfaces, such as the repetition of certain motifs at different levels and scales.

St. Louis’ First Sainte Chapelle

The Catholic Church considers the chapel built by King Louis as a Sainte Chapelle because it housed holy relics. It also served as a prototype for the Sainte Chapelle he built 10 years later on Paris’s Îsle de la Cité to house those same relics.

Pierre de Montreuil, took advantage of the moat around the Châteax Vieux to replace the traditional Gothic-style arched windows with rectangular windows to bring more light into the nave. Seven heads in the round decorate the carved keystones of the rib vaults, including those of Saint Louis and his mother, Blanche of Castille.

St Louis Chapell, St Germain en Laye, Louis IX, St Louis de France

The St. Louis Chapel in St. Germain en Laye

The significant events that took place here include:

  • François I’s wedding with Claude of France in 1514
  • The Te Deum sung with great ceremony to thank God for the birth of Louis XIV
  • The baptism ceremony of Louis XIV at the age of four.

The Sainte Chapelle in Paris

This year, I went looking for King Louis IX in Paris at the conclusion of our Viking River Cruise up the Seine. With Notre Dame de Paris tragically burned and closed, we walked two blocks south to the Sainte Chapelle. King Louis IX built this church between 1242 and 1248 specifically to house the relics of the Passion of Christ. It presents us with an exceptional example of the French High- or Rayonnant-Gothic architecture.

Basse Chapelle, Sainte Chapelle, St. Louis de France, King Louis IX

The Basse Chapelle

You enter through the Basse Chapelle, or Lower Chapel, which is a jewel box of color and gilding, filled with carved decorations, polychrome arches and faux jewels, topped by a vaulted ceiling. A statue of St. Louis stands at the end of the nave, based on the 14th-century statue at the Chateau of Mainneville that was completed shortly after his canonization. One can still see some of the polychrome paint but the king is missing both hands. Experts consider this statue most similar to descriptions of the king by his contemporaries.

The Holy Relics

St Louis de France, Basse Chapelle, St. Chapelle, Paris, King Louis IX

St. Louis in the Basse Chapelle

The Sainte Chapelle once housed relics acquired by King Louis IX during his first Crusade. These include the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus and the Image of Edessa, a piece of cloth said to hold a miraculous image of the face of Jesus. King Louis later added fragments of the True Cross and the Holy Lance, which pierced Jesus’s side as he hung on the Cross. These items held such value at the time that he paid more to acquire them than to build the whole of the Sainte Chapelle.

The Image of Edessa, or Mandylion, went missing during the French Revolution, when many relics and works of art were destroyed. The other relics were, ironically, moved to Notre Dame de Paris for safekeeping. They survived the cathedral’s disastrous fire and now reside in the Louvre.

Climbing to the Haute Chapelle

Sainte Chapelle, King Louis IX, St Louis de France, Rayonnant Gothic Architecture

Windows of the Haute Chapelle

When you have seen all of the lower chapel, you climb a narrow, spiral stone staircase to the Haute Chapelle (High Chapel) and step into a brilliant world of light and color.

Here, the structural walls more or less disappear, replaced by 15 tall, thin, stained-glass windows that seem to form a continuous expanse. These extraordinary windows depict scenes from both New and Old Testaments as well as the stories of the holy relics, including their rediscovery and relocation to Paris.

 A Unique Experience

I cannot describe accurately the unique experience of standing in this high, brilliant room surrounded by light and beauty everywhere you look. It is a fitting space for sacred objects as it seems to reach all the way to heaven. The vaulted ceiling, which is painted dark blue and sprinkled with stars, reinforces this sense.

Rose Window, Sainte Chapelle, Book of Revelations, stained glass

The rose window at the Sainte Chapelle

The rose window at the rear of the nave illustrates 87 striking scenes from the Book of Revelation. It also shows us what the rose window in the Sainte Chapelle of St. Germain en Laye might have looked like before King Francois I blocked it off.

You exit down the spiral staircase on the opposite side to re-enter the real world of sunlight un-transformed by rich color and brilliant gold.

Where Next?

I found St. Louis de France in all these places so far, although I am still traveling. Who knows where he will pop up next?

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