Henry Samuel, The Telegraph, December 10, 2021
Heritage experts have given the green light to a controversial redesign of the interior of Notre-Dame, including possible street art and mood lighting, despite critics complaints it amounted to politically correct “vandalism” of the Gothic masterpiece.
Stéphane Bern, a celebrity TV presenter who the French president tasked with raising funds to save Gallic heritage treasures, joined high-profile artists and academics in signing a petition that warned the controversial plans would “gravely compromise the resurrection” of the cathedral.
However, the vote passed with only minor conditions set.
Notre-Dame was severely damaged by the blaze on April 16 2019, when images of flames engulfing the roof and toppling its 19th-century spire shocked the world.
Those parts of the building that were damaged by fire will be painstakingly restored to their former glory. However, under the new plans some areas that were relatively less affected by the disaster will undergo far greater change.
The commission approved proposals to create themed chapels on a “discovery trail”, with an emphasis on Africa and Asia, while quotes from the Bible will be projected onto chapel walls in various languages, including Mandarin and Arabicd. The final chapel on the trail will have a strong environmental emphasis.
Confessional boxes will be replaced with modern art murals, and new sound and light effects to create “emotional spaces”.
The culture ministry said that street art pioneer Ernest Pignon-Ernest, as well as other modern artists such as Anselm Kiefer and Louise Bourgeois, are among the names being considered for display.
However, altars and classical sculptures will remain in the side chapels and the design of high-tech illuminated, removable pews faces more scrutiny.
Father Gilles Drouin, who is in charge of the interior renovation insisted there was nothing radical in the plans.
“The cathedral has always been open to art from the contemporary period, right up to the large golden cross by sculptor Marc Couturier installed by Cardinal Lustiger in 1994,” he said.
The altar will remain in place, but other items such as the tabernacle and baptistery will be rejigged, while most of the confessionals will move to the first floor, leaving only four in the main section.
Side chapels, which were in a “terrible state” even before the fire, will be entirely renovated with a focus on artworks including “portraits from the 16th and 18th centuries that will be in dialogue with modern art objects,” he told AFP.
However, the plans have sparked fury in some quarters.
Reacting to the vote, one high-placed Notre-Dame critic told The Telegraph: “In France, what is called modernisation amounts to vandalism.”
The petition in Le Figaro entitled “Notre-Dame de Paris: What the fire spared, the diocese wants to destroy” expressed horror at the plans, which it said were reminiscent of so many “‘immersive’ cultural projects where very often the inane vies with the kitsch” and risked “totally adulterating the decor and liturgical space”.
It complained that the planned makeover would “reduce to naught the patiently drawn up designs of Viollet-le-Duc”, the celebrated architect who restored the cathedral following the ravages of the French Revolution in an effort to recapture the spirit of Medieval Christianity.
“Let’s respect (his) work, let’s respect the work of artist and craftsmen who have toiled to offer us this jewel, let us simply respect the heritage principles of a historical monument,” it wrote.
However, the restoration plan has its supporters.
Henri Loyrette, heritage curator and former head of the Louvre museum, said: “One cannot imagine a reconstruction of Notre-Dame without an aggiornamento. The question is not, ‘should there be contemporary art?’, but rather, ‘what is a church today?’.
“A strictly identical renovation is a capitulation,” he told Le Monde, which said a fierce battle was underway in the French Catholic Church between “believers in modernity and ecumenism and the guardians of a nostalgic conservatism”.