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Tim O'Reilly

Illumined in Sainte-Chapelle


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Louis IX left Notre Dame to the ordinary folk and heard Mass himself across the square,
in his exquisite private chapel.

After visiting Notre Dame, I headed across the street, nose in a map, driven by a faint memory of a passing mention of a small church "with the best stained glass outside of Chartres."

Sainte-Chapelle. That must be it, I thought. But where was it? On the map it looked like it was actually in the courtyard of the police headquarters building, the Palais de Justice. And indeed it was. As we approached, it seemed we had to go through metal detectors to get anywhere near.

With my wife and daughters in tow, I walked to the back of a courtyard, rounded the bend and entered a small, low-ceilinged Romanesque chapel. It was quite pretty, but it hardly justified the high praise I'd heard.

Then I noticed that people armed with guidebooks were passing by with hardly a glance at the frescoes and stained glass I was trying to admire. Instead, they were streaming right to a doorway in the back wall of the chapel. There must be more through there, I said to myself.

We squeezed through the narrow doorway and up a circular stone staircase…into Glory.

With the perfect proportions of a Gothic cathedral, but only the size of a vest pocket, Sainte-Chapelle seems somehow to bring into vibrant coexistence the magnificence of those cathedrals and the intimacy of a space meant for more ordinary living.

And the stained glass! Narrow ribs of soaring stone separate band after band of illumination—what seems like more glass than all of Notre Dame in a space one-tenth the size. Colors so exquisite that they seem more real than those we ordinarily know. Shafts of brilliance from every side, as if we'd found our way to the heart of a jewel, to the heart of a dragon's hoard of jewels.

I lay on the floor for a few precious moments, soaking it all in without having to divert even the attention it requires to stand, until the embarrassment of my daughters and the disapproval of the guard reeled me back, a fish torn from what ought to be my natural element, afloat in those seas of light.

About Tim O'Reilly:
Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly & Associates, a technical information company involved in publishing, conferences, and open source software. He is a co-founder of Travelers' Tales and is a contributing editor when his brothers hold his feet to the fire.

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