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Dusty old church

August 2, 2009

A few days ago, I had a free afternoon, so I decided to visit one of Paris’s most incredible

Saint Chapelle's exterior

Saint Chapelle's exterior

churches — no, not Notre Dame (which is technically a cathedral), but rather Saint Chapelle. The church was built during the mid-1200s by Saint Louis, the king of France at the time (I think it’s pretty cool that the French actually had a saint as leader of their country).

So naturally, there’s a pretty decent line to see the thing, not mention a charge (8 euros, 5 if you’re under 25 years old) — which is incredible considering that it costs nothing to go into Notre Dame. (For information about tickets to Saint Chapelle, check out the details here.)

But I had heard some pretty good things about the church, so I braved the queue armed with a book (Paris: A Secret History, which I got from the Abbey Bookshop), I waited in the lines, then submitted to to the security check.

When I finally entered, I was a little disappointed. Half of the church seemed to be devoted to a souvenir shop, and I could find nothing of the famed stained glass windows, so I walked around a bit trying to divine why the church was considered so extraordinary.

And then I realized that I wasn’t actually in the church. Rather, I was in the church, but it was in the lower portion meant for peasants of the time. (This area, of course, hadn’t been as lavishly decorated as the room reserved for the king.)

So I walked up the stairs — winding ones with so much age that their stone had worn away in the center of each step.

Saint Chapelle's magnificent stained-glass windows

Saint Chapelle's magnificent stained-glass windows

And when I reached the top, I finally understood. The chapel was adorned with 15 glass windows in red, yellow, green, blue and violet, each of which was taller than the chapel was wide. The windows showed 1,113 different scenes from the Bible. Though the windows to the East were a little dirtier than their neighbors across the way, it was impossible not to marvel at the intricacy and sheer beauty of the masterpiece before me.

But then again, maybe it was just impossible for me. I sat, awestruck, in the chairs provided to look up to the tops of the windows (which were so far up that they were hard to look at for a long period of time — it just hurt your neck too much), and then I heard someone say:

“This is a pretty dusty old church.”

Stunned, I couldn’t help but look his way. He didn’t notice. Rather, he and his friend continued to talk about how the church was old and how in one or two places, the paint had peeled. It was true, I admit. There was dust on a couple of the statues and grime on some of the windows that even I had noticed, but I had never thought of the place as dirty.

The conversation was so frustrating for me to hear, I had to stop myself from snapping that they wouldn’t find anything like this in Jersey. But then again, I guess that’s the problem. Americans are used to their monuments being less than 200 years old (250 if we’re really lucky) and spotlessly clean. Maybe it’s because we have fewer of them, so we can take the time to preserve what we’ve got. In Paris, though, there are a ton of churches, most of whom have ceilings a couple stories tall and more intricate stonework than we would know what to do with. So it’s not surprising that it’s tough to find and pay for someone to keep these monuments clean while not wrecking the priceless glass and stonework.

The moral of the story (I’m taking this entry à la Fontaine) is that when visiting one of the older monuments in Paris — or even anywhere in Europe — you should take a minute to realize that “old” is not 200 years; it’s more like 1,000 or more. If things are a little dusty, try to look past it. Otherwise, you might miss the real beauty of it all, and after all, there’s no point in going to Europe if not for that.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 2, 2009 7:55 pm

    And, we also have to pay upwards of $30 to even get into our monuments, which pays the janitors and specialists to keep them spotless. When I was in Europe, I gathered they would rather have more people see the monuments and take in the history than worry about how nice they look all the time.

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