The Royal Chapel of Versailles

Source: FSSPX News

The roof of the Royal Chapel of the Palace of Versailles renovated

The colossal renovation of the Royal Chapel of the Palace of Versailles was completed in spring 2021. In January, the scaffolding which covered the entire building was removed, revealing the splendor of the cross dominating the slate roof covered with gold, with its escort of brilliantly restored statues of saints.

The Louis XIV’s design had always been to make the palace chapel “the most magnificent place of this sumptuous and brilliant building.” This was the expression of Le Mercure galant during the blessing of the oratory in 1682, when the whole court was moving to Versailles. At the time, the chapel occupied the place between the end of the king’s large apartment and the Thetis grotto, now Hercules’ living room. This was its fourth location.

The first chapel had been installed in 1665 in the small north-eastern corner pavilion, then in 1672, it moved to the current queen’s guard room, before moving to the king’s large guard room four years later, the current coronation hall. But the Sun King was already considering “the construction of the final chapel which was to be the true crowning of his work.”

Ten Years of Work and a Masterpiece

Its first architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, submitted to the king the final plan of the future chapel in 1699; it replaced several projects, the oldest of which dated back to 1679. Delayed by the war of the League of Augsburg, the work finally began. Mansart did not see the end of it. Having returned his soul to God on May 11, 1708, it was his brother-in-law, Robert de Cotte, who completed the work.

The last major construction site of Louis XIV, the construction of the Royal Chapel required more than ten years of work and cost the royal treasury two and a half million livres. On June 5, 1710, Cardinal de Noailles, Archbishop of Paris, consecrated the walls, in the presence of eighty priests and the whole court.

The Marquis de Dangeau reported how the procession of the ciborium, transported from the oratory to its new home, “was followed by the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy, the Dukes of Brittany and Chartres, and the Count of Charolais. The king himself king had examined the chapel from top to bottom as early as May 22, and tried the acoustics by having a motet sung there.”

The Royal Chapel of Versailles is dedicated to St. Louis, the Crusader King who is also the patron saint of the Sun King. This is to Versailles what the Sainte-Chapelle is to the Ile de la Cité, site of the old palace where Louis IX lived. The architectural relationship between the two buildings has been noted.

The admirable restoration which is completed today has not gone so far as to reconstruct the lantern which originally overhung the roof of the chapel.

Dom Guillou points out that, while the chateau grew in length, only the chapel is tall: “the religious vertical crosses the human horizontal. And it was even better seen when, on the roof of the sacred edifice, more beautiful and more ornate than all the others, with its golden festoons and its crest of fleur-de-lis, a golden lantern rose in the sky. Saint-Simon was talking about ‘a horrible raising over the castle’... What is horrible is having such bad judgment. All the more so as the momentum of the chapel, so perfectly expressive, is strongly balanced by several longitudinal lines which match the whole of the palace.”

The lantern was not small. In 1729, the young Louis XV wanted to know how many people could fit there. He brought up roofers, masons, carpenters, and even soldiers and guards. In total, it held 139! This is how sturdy the building was.

In 1759, however, a general repair of the frame was necessary. The height and weight of the lantern made it delicate. The master plumber Thibault proposed the dismantling and reconstruction of the lantern, recommending replacing the wood of the structure with soldered iron and the lead elements with copper. On November 9, 1764, the Marquis de Marigny, director general of the King’s Buildings, transmitted the master plumber’s report to the architect Gabriel.

Gabriel, the king’s premier architect, wanted to leave his mark on the entire palace. He claimed to bring it up to date, now more sober and turned towards the antique, by removing elements that were too baroque in his eyes. In his response of November 23, 1764, he invoked the risk of water infiltration between the new lantern and the roof to advocate “the total removal of this lantern” as well as “all this clutter of ornaments” (sic).

In addition to removing the lantern, Gabriel recommended removing all the lead ornaments from the chapel, leaving at the top only a roof with soberly bare lines, in harmony with the new facades he wanted to build. The result would lead to the lowering of the chapel to the crest line of future constructions.

Thibault, the master plumber, re-examined the roof and the lantern and wrote to Marigny on December 7, 1764. On the strength of the precise surveys he had carried out, he tempered the alarmist observation of the first architect: only the columns of the lantern were rotten in places and could be replaced by iron columns. He also recommended the use of waterproof sealants and the application of several coats of paint to alleviate the dangers of corrosion.

Alas, Marigny yielded to pressure from Gabriel who advocated a less expensive restoration—a  perspective which had the support of Lécuyer, controller general of the King’s Buildings.

He met with opposition from the Dauphin Louis-Ferdinand, encouraged by the parti dévot, hostile to this innovation as well as to the destruction of the religious and royal symbols which adorned the roof of the chapel.

Finally, Louis XV settled the argument on April 25, 1765 by deciding on the removal of the lantern and the two great motifs of the arms of France placed as support on both sides. Nevertheless he kept the other roof ornaments. The sumptuous lantern was destroyed in June 1765. At 12 meters high, it gave the whole an incomparable beauty.

Despite its absence, we must salute the work carried out today by the various trades. Not only has the roof been completely redone with its gold-leaf gilding, but the program led by Frédéric Didier, chief architect of historical monuments, has extended to the stained glass windows with the re-gilding of their metal frames, cleaning and repair of the framework, and also to all the carved decoration.

This is how the 28 statues of the outer balustrade, all made of Tonnerre stone and representing the apostles, evangelists, prophets, Church fathers, and Christian virtues were renovated, as were the reliefs, friezes, cartouches and moldings that decorate the walls of the chapel.

(This article is taken in part from one written by Fr. Thouvenot in Nouvelles de Chrétienté no. 188, where it can be read in its entirety. The journal is available by subscription.)