source : https://www.theguardian.com
Wed 11 Mar ‘09 12.42 GMT- source
Paris’s radiant gothic masterpiece soars as weightlessly as any modern glass edifice, yet it’s 750 years old
If you want to have your intellectual world turned upside down, if you want to throw away every preconception you possess about architecture, history and modernity, there’s a church in Paris you really must visit.
Saint-Chapelle stands at the very heart of Paris, a few steps away from Notre Dame, but it’s hidden away within the Palace of Justice, and to visit it you must pass through the court security checks. Only then can you climb a spiral staircase into a room that resembles paradise.
This place is a weightless dream of pure colour. Everywhere you look, bright and glittering stained glass filters daylight in the most subtle ways. The glass teems with pictures, but what overwhelms is the sheer ecstasy of light. Tall and elegant windows separated by the slenderest of pillars create a startling effect of total transparency, like standing in a crystal.
Saint-Chapelle was built 600 years before the Crystal Palace amazed Victorian London, over 800 years before the Louvre’s glass pyramid – but it anticipates such modern wonders with its walls of glass. This gothic masterpiece built in about 1241 to 1248 is a stunning coup of engineering. It demonstrates more clearly than any other building how radically the master masons of the middle ages rethought architecture. No one had created anything like this before – not the Greeks, not the Romans, not even Islam.
The principle of the Gothic architectural revolution in 13th-century Europe is a stroke of brilliant practical engineering. The Romans had invented the arch, which distributes weight equally downwards onto its two ends. In early medieval architecture round arches create aesthetic pleasure in buildings like the Great Mosque in Cordoba. But the Gothic takes it further: firstly making the arch pointed to increase its height, and secondly raising rib-like cages of vaulting that press the entire weight of the roof down through a system of arches on to a few columns. Although made of stone, a Gothic church is actually a structure of arched scaffolding with walls slung between it – the walls carry no weight. A final touch of genius is the use of exterior flying buttresses, again using the principle of the arch, to permit even more daring extensions of height.
All this is visible in its most pristine form at Saint-Chapelle. Here, the architect – traditionally identified as Pierre de Montreuil – experiments boldly. If the walls can be perforated with huge areas of stained glass, why not take that as far as it can go? The result is a building of glass, whose supporting frame of stone vaulting is as airy as the steel frame of a modern glass building.
The word « medieval » suggests a heavy, dark, primitive, brooding past. Sainte-Chapelle irradiates that cliché. Some of the greatest modern architectural thinkers and creators such as Ruskin and Gaudi were fascinated by the middle ages. Saint-Chapelle reveals why. This miracle of light is one of the most beautiful buildings on earth.