New Controversy Erupts Over Plans for the Rebuilding of Notre Dame

A leak in the French media suggested the rebuilding of the interior of the cathedral is tilting towards a more contemporary style, but the Archdiocese of Paris insists no decision will be made before the end of March.

French Culture minister Roselyne Bachelot (1st-R) visits the reconstruction site of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, on November 24, 2020.
French Culture minister Roselyne Bachelot (1st-R) visits the reconstruction site of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, on November 24, 2020. (photo: MARTIN BUREAU / AFP/Getty)

PARIS, France — Six months after the end of a long and fierce controversy surrounding the terms for the rebuilding of the roof and spire of Notre-Dame, a new national outcry has erupted after part of the rebuilding project for the interior of the monument, severely damaged by the 2019 blaze, was leaked to the press. 

Indeed, according to an article by Le Figaro, the committee appointed by Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris a few months ago, comprised of various experts and clergymen, to think about the future interior trim of the cathedral has recently come up with some proposals — discussed at an assembly of Parisian priests — that appear unlikely to attract support from a consensus of the French population. 

The most controversial element of the proposals revealed by the French daily newspaper is the possibility to replace architect Viollet-le-Duc’s historic glass-stained windows in the chapels around the nave (which survived the fire) by contemporary and more colorful ones, on which biblical verses would be projected. 

The other significant change would concern the furniture, in particular the wooden and straw-bottomed chairs, which would be replaced by benches with light spots. In the same way, projectors would be installed at the base of the cathedral’s pillars to better bring out the nave. This fitting-out, according to Le Figaro, which had access to the synthesis photographs, “gives an impression of an airport runway, or even of a parking lot.” 


Catechetical Path’ 

In the face of the media uproar following the publication of the article, the Archdiocese of Paris promptly published a press release in which it recalled that the different proposals contained in the draft project only aim at “accompanying all visitors, believers or not, on a path able to initiate each person to the very meaning of that cathedral — that of the celebration of the Christian mystery.” 

In an interview with the Register, Karine Dalle, who is responsible for the diocese’s communications, regretted an overreaction on the part of the media, which led to a misleading interpretation of the project. 

“Some people got wind of some of the options and pounced on it, reducing the project to a battle between tradition and contemporary art but it is much more than that, and it goes without saying that the archbishop has never had any intention to turn the cathedral into an airport or a parking lot!” Dalle told the Register, pointing out that the proposal regarding the nave’s stained-glass windows by no means concerns the famous 13th-century rose of Notre-Dame.  

The original intention, she said, was to find a way to better highlight the chapels of the nave, which are poorly lit and maintained. 

In this connection, the 13 paintings known as the “Mays” —a series of works offered by the goldsmiths’ guild of Paris to the cathedral on May 1 of each year between 1630 and 1707 in honor of the Virgin Mary, and which are currently being restored — may also return to the nave after being taken down in the 19th century.  

The Le Figaro article also mentioned the creation of new visitor paths, including one dedicated to the Virgin Mary and another one to the Crown of Thorns. At a time when many tourists visit the monument without knowing its real spiritual meaning, “the archbishop’s goal is to remind people of the reasons why the cathedral was built in the first place, beyond the heritage treasure it represents,” Dalle told the Register. “He and his committee aim at establishing a catechetical path throughout the chapels, especially through the stained-glass windows, which would enable the visitors to rediscover the Christian faith along the way.”

“I believe that this project and the debates it has aroused can also be a sign of richness, especially if we keep in mind the original purpose of the cathedral.”


Legal Constraints 

The diocese’s spokeswoman insisted that many details were still to be discussed, and approved by several national authorities, before any decision is taken. Since the French state owns the cathedral and the diocese is only the allocator, its power will be limited, ultimately, to religious furniture. The stained-glass windows, therefore, falls within the competence of the state. 

And the French Minister of Culture Roselyne Bachelot has already expressed an adverse opinion on the proposal to replace Viollet-le-Duc’s stained-glass windows by citing, in a recent interview, the Venice Charter that France signed in 1964 which mandates the conservation of the existing works in the restoration process of historic monuments. “[This project] is for me inadmissible and contrary to the agreements we signed,” she said. 

The question of the financing also will necessarily arise, since by virtue of the July 2019 law regulating the rebuilding of Notre-Dame, the funds raised for the monument following the blaze can only be allocated tor restoration and conservation work. The diocese would therefore have to find funds elsewhere if it wants to do other things to the cathedral as well. 

For the time being, Archbishop Aupetit’s committee is still working on the details of the draft project, which should be presented to the relevant authorities and to the press during the first trimester of 2021. And these sometimes contentious debates haven’t stopped the smooth progress of the restoration work at Notre Dame. On Nov. 24, the tricky dismantling operation of the imposing scaffolding surrounding the spire, devastated during the blaze, was successfully achieved. A few days later on Dec. 9, the Cathedral’s official Twitter account announced that the famous grand organs were dismantled and removed for restoration. 

A Chicago-based U.S. art conservation company, GC Laser System, is also bringing its expertise to assist with the restoration process, thanks to a unique laser cleaning technology.