Traditional Art Lovers Shattered by Plan to Replace Notre Dame Stained-Glass Windows With Modern Design
French president Emmanuel Macron, backed by the archbishop of Paris, is planning to replace a series of stained-glass windows, even though they remained intact after the devastating fire of 2019.
A new episode in the series of controversies surrounding the restoration of Notre Dame has been stirring up art and heritage circles since December.
And it appears supporters of the introduction of contemporary elements as part of the reconstruction of the famous cathedral, which was largely destroyed in a fire in April 2019, may soon have their day this time around.
In the wake of the disaster that shook the world almost 5 years ago, architects and members of the government tried in vain to promote a “contemporary gesture” to replace the emblematic spire installed by 19th-century architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. They may now see their wish come true instead through the replacement of a series of six stained-glass windows, designed by the same architect, with new windows intended to bear “the mark of the 21st century.”
This project, announced by President Emmanuel Macron in December with the support of the Archdiocese of Paris, has since been strongly criticized by various experts, not least because the stained-glass windows in question were completely spared by the fire. Two citizens’ petitions calling for the historic stained-glass windows to be preserved have so far attracted some 150,000 signatures.
Leaving a Mark of Our Times
During a visit one year ahead of the cathedral’s scheduled reopening on Dec. 8, 2024, the president of the French Republic declared his intention to replace the six stained-glass windows in one of the nave’s southern chapels with contemporary figurative works, following a contest open to artists.
The stained-glass windows by Viollet-le-Duc would be dismantled and displayed in a new art and history museum dedicated to the work of Notre-Dame-de-Paris, to be housed in the nearby Hôtel-Dieu building on Île Saint-Louis.
Macron’s announcement followed a letter from Archbishop Laurent Ulrich of Paris, dated Dec. 4 and made public by RTL radio, in which he made a request to this effect. The prelate felt that the return to the restored building could not take place “without leaving a trace of this event [the fire], of this emotion, which affected not only Paris and the rest of France, but the whole world.”
The archdiocese, which is only the lessee of the state-owned building, had already expressed an initial wish, back in 2020, to see contemporary stained-glass windows incorporated into an interior design project commissioned by the archbishop at the time, Michel Aupetit. However, Roselyne Bachelot, the French Minister of Culture until May 2022, categorically opposed the idea, citing the 1964 Venice Charter, which mandates the conservation of the existing works in the restoration process of historic monuments.
But although the eight-century-old cathedral and its stained-glass windows are classified as historic monuments, it would seem that this time the government is determined to bypass the heritage protection rules that surround them. The presence at Macron’s side of Rima Abdul-Malak, the Minister of Culture since 2022, when the project and contest were announced leaves little room for doubt about the predetermined outcome.
In a Dec. 14 report published by the weekly magazine of the Archdiocese of Paris, Archbishop Ulrich noted that “Notre-Dame is a 13th-century cathedral, but it is also a cathedral that was extensively reworked in the 17th century, formidably restored in the 19th century, maintained in the 20th century and extensively restored in the 21st century. For these reasons, it makes sense to propose stained-glass windows that will remain as signs of our times.”
His approach is also motivated by the need to make the Christian message more accessible to the growing number of visitors from other nationalities and religions. “In this age — and since the 20th century — where travel is a major part of life, people of different religions and backgrounds are increasingly coming into contact with each other, and they don’t have all the keys to the Christian mystery they need to understand it; so we need to simplify our words, our witness and our catechesis to present the faith of the Catholic Church.”
In the summer of 2023, the new, resolutely contemporary liturgical furnishings unveiled by the archdiocese had already triggered an avalanche of criticism and sarcasm on social media.
Similar criticisms were triggered by Macron’s action regarding the stained-glass windows. Following the Dec. 8 announcement, an initial petition was launched by art critic Didier Rykner, founder of the magazine La Tribune de l’art, calling for the conservation of Viollet-le-Duc’s stained-glass windows, gathering almost 130,000 signatures to date. A second citizens’ initiative that followed suit has already reached almost 20,000 signatures.
“These people just want to leave their mark, which they weren’t able to do with the spire,” said Rykner in an interview with the Catholic weekly Famille chrétienne, describing the removal of intact historical works as “deliberate vandalism.” He also argued that the only suitable place for contemporary stained-glass windows would be in the north tower of the building, which has bays without stained glass, and which was affected by the blaze.
For him, the main danger of the project lies in the break envisaged by President Macron with the coherent medieval ensemble that was created by Viollet-le-Duc.
This view is shared by Maryvonne de Saint-Pulgent, former Director General of Heritage at the French Ministry of Culture, who has just published an authoritative work on Paris Cathedral. In an article, she denounced a “relentless attack” on Viollet-le-Duc, who was also behind the spire that Macron wanted to replace with a contemporary work. “Stained glass windows always play a special role in diffracting light. Because they filter light, stained glass has a very important function in a cathedral, especially a Gothic one. When they are removed and replaced by others, the light in the building changes. In short, you're altering a complete work of art, which includes the entire setting.”
The members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts also expressed their concern in a Dec. 20 communiqué. While welcoming the idea of contemporary creation within the monument, they nevertheless concurred that the project should not be carried out at the cost of removing existing decor. “In the chapels, the architect [Viollet Le-Duc] had wanted a light effect to contribute to the balance of this creation, that the fire spared,” they wrote.
Regaining Its Historic Silhouette
Meanwhile, the beloved cathedral is gradually regaining its historic silhouette. Since late November, the top of the spire has begun to rise above the scaffolding, and the religious building regained its cross on Dec. 6. The new golden cockerel has been enthroned at the top of the spire since Dec. 16, after a preliminary blessing.
The next stage will be the installation of the nave and choir frames, a project that already involves some 500 people, including workers, supervisors and craftsmen.