Friday, 15 June 2012


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 Paris with my sister-in-law Julia, was well beyond my grasp.  The experience went like this.

As 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 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 Clovis and developed by his son Childebert from the sixth century. 

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 France.  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. 

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 Paris.  And on the chapel’s columns, decorated with towers on a purple background, are the Arms of Queen Blanche of Castile, 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 Saint Louis, so as his mother was devout one imagines she must have been very proud of him. 

I left the elevated culture of Sainte Chapelle and adjourned across the Seine 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?