Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 28, 2019
Meredith Cohen The Sainte-Chapelle and the Construction of Sacral Monarchy: Royal Architecture in Thirteenth-Century Paris Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 400 pp.; 16 color ills.; 138 b/w ills. Hardcover $120.00 (9781107025578)

The Sainte-Chapelle de Paris is renowned as a monumental reliquary, designed for King Louis IX (r. 1214–70, canonized 1297), to guard the Crown of Thorns and other Passion relics. Its fame is matched only by praise (then and now) for its dazzling Gothic beauty. Despite its importance, few historians have attempted to understand its design. Meredith Cohen’s book fills this void by offering new insight into its architectural significance. The text is organized into five chapters that analyze the creation, dissemination, and crystallization of an aesthetic associated with Capetian rulership in Paris. She retraces the royal patronage of architecture from the time of King Philippe-Auguste (r. 1180–1223) until the end of the reign of his grandson, Louis IX. In the introduction, Cohen carefully assembles a coherent overview of one hundred years of Sainte-Chapelle scholarship and identifies a key turning point in the historiography with the work of Robert Branner, who argued that the formal and iconographic elements of the Sainte-Chapelle served as the genesis of a prestigious “court style” (Saint Louis and the Court Style, 1965). Cohen’s study is very much post-Branner; instead of unpacking the Sainte-Chapelle’s grammar of ornament, she situates the Sainte-Chapelle within a nexus of contemporary urban identity, revealing its “centripetal and centrifugal properties” (9). All the while, she engages with the royal chapel as a site of memory (invoking Pierre Nora) and signifier of symbolic power (citing Pierre Bourdieu) to elucidate how and why the Sainte-Chapelle “naturalized this extension” of Capetian identity as a “bearer of meaning” that “projected, incited, and generated ideas” (7). Although this book is about architecture and royal patronage, it is very much a study of the cultural history of medieval Paris.

In choosing to begin with Philippe-Auguste, who helped to make Paris the administrative capital of the Capetian royaume (kingdom), and his patronage, Cohen’s study already stands apart from all other monographs on the Sainte-Chapelle. Her first chapter, “The Making of a Royal City,” argues that Philippe-Auguste created a “visual division of power” (10) to express his authority through his sponsorship of various sacred and (primarily) secular works in Paris. Here, the reader will find a treasure trove of hitherto unknown (and, in many cases, unpublished) visual sources for understanding Parisian topography from the ca.1190s–1220s, complete with detailed maps, fine black-and-white photographs of original stonework, and clear reproductions of early modern woodcuts and engravings of so many of the city’s now-lost sites. This in-depth study of the early thirteenth-century “building boom” (31) support’s Cohen’s persuasive argument for Philippe-Auguste’s use of architectural patronage as a means of edifying Paris as a nascent “cultural capital” (63).

The second chapter, “The Sainte-Chapelle: Parisian Rayonnant and the New Royal Architecture,” sets out to define and explain the architectural features of the Sainte-Chapelle. It begins by launching into a thorough visual analysis of its formal elements and provides precise data for its dimensions, carefully collected by the author using laser measurement tools. Cohen affirms that the numeric ratios employed by the architect point to biblical archetypes (specifically the Domus of Solomon, Kings 1:7), which both Stephen Murray and Daniel H. Weiss have discussed in previous publications and share an affinity with many local Gothic edifices. All the while, Cohen argues that the Sainte-Chapelle’s architectural design speaks to two overarching aesthetic functions: the desire to create an open space while simultaneously concealing architectonic elements through a profusion of surface decoration. Her discussion of the ubiquitous use of metal as an indication of “an increasing confidence and knowledge of how iron could reinforce the weak points in masonry” (74) and the description of the two exterior doors affixed to the second bay of the north walls of both the upper and lower chapels are novel contributions to our understanding of the building. I was intrigued by the claim that this upper chapel door was completed but “never opened” (79). While Cohen suggests that it could have been planned for “important dignitaries” or “ceremonial entrances” (82), I would have liked to see some interpretation of the reasons for its blockage beyond the tantalizing statement that “at some point during its construction, it was decided that there would be no use for it” (81). Cohen outlines the essential rayonnant features of the Sainte-Chapelle and reinforces the prevailing hypothesis that Amiens Cathedral is the primary source for so many of its design elements, siding with the attribution of the first Amienois master, Robert de Luzarches (initially posited by Dieter Kimpel and Robert Suckale) instead of the second, later master, Thomas de Cormont (suggested by Branner).

After the second chapter’s analysis, the third chapter entitled “The Architecture of Sacral Kingship” provides synthesis. Cohen revisits a number of longstanding historiographical questions concerning the “architectural iconography” of the Sainte-Chapelle and its relationship to earlier sacrae capellae, Doppelkapellen, and other palatine (both royal and episcopal) prototypes. It ends with a very brief overview of how aspects of the decorative program of the stained glass in the upper chapel evokes the idea of sacral kingship, relying primarily on the groundbreaking art historical study of these windows by Alyce Jordan, Visualizing Kingship in the Windows of the Sainte-Chapelle (2002).

The fourth chapter, “Private, Public, and the Promotion of the Cult of Kings,” begins with a short overview of the palace’s history on the Île de la Cité before addressing questions of public access to the royal chapel, which the author first considered in an earlier article (“An Indulgence for the Visitor: The Public at the Sainte-Chapelle de Paris.” Speculum 83.4, 2008: 840–83). The truly “public” nature of the Sainte-Chapelle, a resplendent, palatine space that contained the royal collection of Christological relics, remains a subject of debate. I worry that the presence of merchants’ stalls adjacent to the royal chapel in the fourteenth century does not necessarily confirm that “a variety of people had access to the palace” (151). If this were the case in the fourteenth century, perhaps we cannot assume to say the same for thirteenth century during the reign of King Louis IX. Moreover, the conventional rhetoric of the papal bull issued in June 1244 by Pope Innocent IV, which granted indulgences to omnibus cum devotione ac reverentia visitantibus does not necessarily confirm “visitors were welcome in the Sainte-Chapelle” (152). Finally, while both of the fifteenth-century ordinals examined by Cohen also refer to the presence of the populus in various ceremonies staged at the Sainte-Chapelle, I am not sure if we can infer from this singular phrase without more concrete evidence that nonelite people consistently visited the king’s chapel.

Like the opening chapter on the works of Philippe-Auguste, the fifth chapter examining “Louis’ later Patronage in Paris,” is rich with original ideas and observations. It too focuses on a constellation of architectural case studies (in this instance ca1250s–1270s, after the king’s return from his disastrous crusade) and benefits immensely from Cohen’s close looking at numerous early modern prints of lost Gothic buildings. Any scholar interested in the architecture of the mendicants, including the lesser-known Mathurins, Friars of the Sack, Blancs-Manteaux, Servants of the Virgin, and Guillemites, have a great deal to gain from reading this chapter. Following the pioneering research by William Chester Jordan on Louis IX’s post-crusade embrace of piety, Cohen argues convincingly that his late-in-life architectural patronage served as a physical, tangible expression of his “goodwill, charity, and glory” toward the inhabitants of the royal city (194).

The conclusion presents a brief summary of the central arguments laid out in the book followed by four appendices. The fourth appendix, entitled “The Dimensions of the Sainte-Chapelle,” deserves special mention. It is comprised of a remarkable table of measurement data concerning the height, width, and length (both royal feet and meters) of so many of the chapel’s parts, equipping any architectural historian with a very handy toolkit—if only every book about medieval buildings had this much precision! In the end, any reader will feel as if they have learned a tremendous amount about this extraordinary royal chapel. Cohen has presented a vivid panorama of medieval Paris in unprecedented clarity.

I have only minor final observations about such a major work of scholarship. First, there are a few proofreading errors scattered throughout the text. Secondly, because there is such a diligent examination of Philippe-Auguste’s patronage, some readers might also expect to see more analysis of the building projects of the Louis IX’s parents, King Louis VIII and, particularly, Queen Blanche of Castile, but neither of these royal figures take center stage. Also, when the importance and influence of Amiens on the Sainte-Chapelle is discussed in chapter 2, I would have liked to know more about the methods of building the royal chapel and the mentalities of its architects and artisans. With that said, there is a short, two-page discussion of “Who Devised the Sainte-Chapelle?” in appendix 1. Due to its place and length, this section feels like an ancillary addition, offering only a summary of recent debates about the conception of the chapel’s design. Nevertheless, this book will fascinate scholars of Gothic architecture and Capetian history. It should be required reading for every student of medieval French history and art and architectural history.

Emily Davenport Guerry
Senior Lecturer in Medieval European History, University of Kent