Without looking it up, I bet you don’t know what boustrophedonically means. If you do, you must be super smart, really pedantic or you cheated. I mean it sounds like a made up word; a drug induced construct. Or something only an engineer or scientist would understand. But actually, it’s a quasi literary/artistic term which, until I explored
my sister-in-law Julia, was well beyond my grasp. The experience went like this. Paris
is one of those cities you can never
expect to complete, I was delighted when Julia took me somewhere special in the
French Capital that I hadn’t previously visited. Sainte-Chapelle
is a gem of High Gothic architecture situated not far from Notre-Dame, on Ile-de-la-Cité, the small island in the middle
of the Paris Seine. Along with the Conciergerie (the Prison) and Palais de Justice
(the Law Courts) it is all that remains of the oldest palace of the first Kings
of France; established by
and developed by his son Childebert from the sixth century. Clovis
Sainte-Chapelle itself was founded by Louis IX in 1248 to house the relics of the Passion of Christ. The most famous of these relics was the Crown of Thorns, acquired in 1239 for an amount of money that apparently exceeded the cost of building the chapel itself. Though Sainte-Chapelle was completely restored in the mid-nineteenth century, it is quite remarkable that the original stained-glass windows, which are the reliquary chapel’s unique signature, survived a wave of destruction throughout the revolutionary period and two world wars.
If you’re inclined to think “oh yeah, seen one stained-glass window, seen them all” then think again. The first floor of Sainte-Chapelle is adorned with fifteen of the largest and most spectacular windows you will ever see. And as the buttresses and supporting columns of the building have been positioned externally, when you step out of the spiral staircase into the single nave chapel you are entirely surrounded with bright-coloured glass. It is literally like finding yourself in the middle of a kaleidoscope. And you have to pinch yourself to be sure it isn’t a dream.
I’m sure I’m not the first or last tourist to well with tears at the sight of such magic. Yet before I could begin to comprehend the detail of the 1,113 bible scenes depicted in the glass panels, my pleasure was enhanced by my nephew Noah’s hand tugging at mine: “isn’t it beautiful Aunty Julie… I nearly cried too when I first saw it”. Out of the mouths of babes - for children’s ability to perceive beauty and embrace tenderness in all its forms is another thing of great wonder.
I spent considerable time in Sainte-Chapelle trying to follow the bible stories, which on fourteen windows are ‘read’ from the bottom upwards. Unfortunately my Old Testament knowledge is not as good as it should be and I got lost somewhere between Ezekiel and Job. Nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed the images for their own sake.
Particularly fascinating is the window which tells the story of the relics, from their discovery by Saint Helen in
Jerusalem to their arrival in . It is this window which is read
'boustrophedonically' - which I learnt means to be read from the bottom upwards
but with alternate lines read in opposite directions, right to left then left
to right. I have no idea who invented
such a practice, or why, but it was rather like playing snakes and ladders and continually
losing your place. Or perhaps trying to
read the newspaper after the chardonnay has gone to your head. With a little effort, however, I think I got
the general gist and frankly enjoyed the challenge. France
Afterwards I sat down on a bench and sank into the stunning atmosphere which is actually the more important point. Then I noticed other attractive decorations in the chapel, such as thirteenth century statues of the apostles, and a diverse array of carved capitals, painted ‘arcatures’ and attractive ‘quatrefoils’… more context specific lingo, this time of an architectural nature.
After a blissful period of time wrapped in this unusual kaleidoscope of colour and sensation, I eventually moved downstairs to find a Lower Chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The beautifully restored polychrome decorations with an azure background covered in fleur-de-lys, is much simpler than the main attraction upstairs but it is quietly pretty. I was interested to see a thirteenth century Annunciation fresco above the door to the former Sacristy, for it’s reputed to be the oldest wall painting in
. And on the chapel’s columns, decorated with
towers on a purple background, are the Arms of Queen Blanche of Paris ,
Louis IX’s mother. I soon learnt Louis
IX’s reign was marked not only by the highly commendable construction of Sainte Chapelle, but for numerous
Christian Crusades and general piety. In
fact he was the only King of France to be canonized, referred to thereafter as Castile , so as his
mother was devout one imagines she must have been very proud of him. Saint Louis
I left the elevated culture of Sainte Chapelle and adjourned across the
to a pet shop with my nephews Noah and Cameron.
We were soon determined to take home the cutest little Border Collie puppy
with eyes which called out to be loved.
But I suppose someone had to act like a grown-up, so when Julia joined
us she put a stop to our pleading by giving me ‘the look’ – the one which says
“it’s all very well to be the cool and indulgent aunty but someone around here
has to shepherd these children along the straight and narrow”. I have a lot of nieces and nephews so I’ve
seen that look many times before.
Can anyone think up one word which might describe it?