A Hymn of Praise Written in Stone and Glass

In his Letter to Artists of May 1999, Pope John Paul II has reminded us that “society needs artists” because art is an integral part of the education of the person and thus serves the common good. A flourishing society includes public art that perfects man; a society without such art is lame, like a man with one eye. As we live in just such a lame society, we especially need art history, which can put before us examples of past societies in which art served the common good in fruitful ways. One such society was France under the reign of St. Louis IX (1226-1270).

The age of St. Louis, of course, coincides with the height of the Gothic style. His reign saw the substantial completion of the Cathedrals of Reims and Amiens as well as the magnificent reconstruction of the Abbey of St. Denis. St. Louis’ name is more closely connected with the Sainte-Chapelle of Paris (1243-1248), which he commissioned to house the relics of the Passion of Our Lord, especially the Crown of Thorns. The Sainte-Chapelle has been much studied, and, indeed, the monograph of Jean-Michel Leniaud and Françoise Perrot (La Sainte Chapelle, Paris: Centre Nationale de Monuments Historiques, 1991) will not soon be displaced as the standard reference on the construction, restoration, and stained glass of the building. The contribution of Daniel Weiss has been to make the relations between art and politics the special subject of his monograph.

Art and Crusade in the Age of Saint Louis treats two significant objects of royal patronage: the Arsenal Old Testament, a lavish illuminated manuscript the king commissioned while on Crusade in the Holy Land, and the Sainte-Chapelle. The author’s contention is that both works are kinds of political and religious propaganda meant to justify the ideal of the Crusade. The point is much overstated at the expense of more important truths, but it is nevertheless true and worth considering. Politics, the art of serving the common good, was understood by St. Louis to include the intelligent patronage of art and architecture. St. Louis is a remarkable figure both for the goodness of his politics and for the evident quality of the art that resulted from his patronage. Many edifying themes are to be found in the iconography of the Sainte-Chapelle, which is at once beautiful and instructive. The careful reader of Daniel Weiss’ book will be able properly to situate these themes within the larger framework of Christian belief. Where the modern and (sadly) unsympathetic critic sees a “royal ideology” glorifying earthly kingship, the Catholic reader of the Sainte-Chapelle may perceive a hymn of praise—written in stone and glass—to Christ, the Eternal King.