On my recent visit to Paris, I have to say that one of the more memorable moments was my visit to the Gothic chapel Sainte-Chapelle and seeing the current stage in the full restoration of its stained glass windows. The Sainte-Chapelle is considered to be a gem in High Gothic architecture. It is located within the grounds of the Palace of Justice. From the 10th to the 14th centuries, this was the residence and seat of royal power. Sainte-Chapelle was built between 1242 and 1248, according to the wishes of Louis the 9th, to house the relics of the Passion of Christ. King Louis the 9th reigned from 1226 to 1270, and became the future Saint Louis. The most famous of these relics was the Crown of Thorns, acquired in 1239 for a sum that greatly exceeded the cost of building the chapel itself.
The Holy Relics had belonged to the emperors of Constantinople since the 4th century. In purchasing them, Louis the 9th added to the prestige of both France and Paris which, in the eyes of medieval Europe, became a “New Jerusalem”, and hence the second capital of Christianity. Throughout the revolutionary period, the Sainte-Chapelle, which was a symbol of royalty by divine right, suffered a great deal of damage, although the stained glass windows remained intact. Starting in 1846, a huge wave of restoration work was carried out on the building, giving it its current appearance.
From the beginning, the Holy Relics were displayed and worshipped in the upper chapel. Only the king, his close friends and family, and the church officials leading the religious services entered the upper chapel through an outdoor terrace, which at the time, was connected to the Palace. The lower chapel was the place of worship for the palace staff.
The upper chapel is a truly monumental and sumptuously decorated reliquary. Sculptures and windows combine harmoniously to glorify the Passion of Christ and create a feeling of entry into the Heavenly Jerusalem, bathed in light and colour. The Sainte-Chapelle owes much of its early fame to the stained glass windows. The 1,113 scenes depicted in the 15 stained glasses windows tell bible stories from Genesis through to Christ’s resurrection. Each window represents a book section in the bible. Fourteen of the windows should be read from left to right and from the bottom upwards.
There is a large stained glass rose that dominates the west end of the chapel. It illustrates the prophetic Apocalypse of St. John in the bible’s Book of Revelation. Symbolically represented opposite the stained glass story of the Passion of Christ, the western rose has in its center the story of Christ’s return in glory at the end of time to judge the dead and the living.
In most churches and other religious architecture across the globe, stained glass is used to convey a unifying message to the faith community. The windows of the Sainte-Chapelle outweigh all others in its elaborate visual storytelling. Louis the 9th did not want his faith community to skip a beat. He wanted his message immortalized with as much detail, clarity and grandiose as his own status and place in history.
Wouldn’t it be great if institutions today can still rely on the wealth of kings to build an edifice that will stand the test of time and preserve their legacy for generations and centuries to come? But we know this cannot be so. We also know that today’s waves of economic and social change require us to create revolutions within our own organizations just to survive the next few years, let alone a whole generation. If we build our mission on stained glass windows, how much time will pass before they will need to be shattered? Is our ultimate goal permanence? Or is it resilience?
What will make our organization stand the test of time? The medieval kings relied on their power and authority. In today’s climate, our organizations too can draw power and influence from staying relevant to the needs of the people we serve. This is driven by the stories we tell and the new stories generated from them. It is a shared power born out of mutual respect for each other and the value that everyone can bring to the table.
If we embrace a true egalitarian way of seeing and working, we won’t need our story depicted on a window that becomes dark when the sun has set. Our mission will continue to shine through in the faces of the people that share our story and tell it as their own story for generations to come.