Plans for a modern interior at Notre Dame Cathedral incite the ire of traditionalists

Sacré Bleu, Quel Dommage, etc.

Plans for a modern interior at Notre Dame Cathedral incite the ire of traditionalists

Notre Dame Cathedral and it's iconic (younger) spire pictured prior to the 2019 fire. (Sebastien/Unsplash)

With careful and complex restoration work at Notre-Dame de Paris now underway with plans for a public debut ahead of the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, there’s fresh indignation over how the fire-ravaged cathedral’s interior might look when it does eventually reopen to worshippers and tourists.

The furor was detailed and disseminated over the weekend by conservative-leaning British publications including The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and The Spectator, all of which gave voice to critics who are aghast at the prospect that the medieval cathedral will reopen as a “politically correct Disneyland”—that is, a Notre Dame Cathedral intended to be more accessible to visitors of all faiths than it was prior to the April 2019 blaze that nearly leveled the landmark. To be clear, the actual structure, including its iconic spire, roof, and beams, will not boast any modern flourishes and are being rebuilt under the auspices of the French government to replicate the cathedral in its pre-fire state. Interior renovation work is being helmed by church officials but plans must ultimately be approved by the government.

Wrote journalist Harry Mount in an op-ed piece published by The Spectator:

“The plans, yet to be rubber-stamped, will turn the cathedral into an ‘experimental showroom,’ with confessional boxes, altars and classical sculptures replaced with modern art murals. New sound and light effects will be introduced to create ‘emotional spaces.’ Themed chapels on a ‘discovery trail’, with an emphasis on Africa and Asia, will pop up. And Bible quotations will be projected onto chapel walls in various languages, including Mandarin. The last chapel on the new trail will have an environmental emphasis.”

Not surprisingly, the outrage pot has also been stirred on this side of the pond. Conservative American media outlets such as Fox News and the Washington Examiner have picked up on traditionalist grievances over the proposed interior revamp with headlines that read: “Notre Dame Cathedral slammed over rebuild plans turning into ‘woke theme park’,” and “Notre Dame Cathedral plans updated interior and modern aesthetic despite criticism.”

“What they are proposing to do to Notre-Dame would never be done to Westminster Abbey or Saint Peter’s in Rome,” lamented Paris-based architect and urbanist Maurice Culot to The Telegraph. “It’s a kind of theme park and very childish and trivial given the grandeur of the place.”

As mentioned, none of the features detailed above are set in stone and church officials will publicly reveal proposed changes to the church’s interior on December 9 when a host of approaches under consideration come under review by France’s National Heritage and Architecture Commission. Like any other culturally and historically sensitive restoration project of this scale, much could change between now and 2024.

Speaking to Agence France-Presse, Father Gilles Drouin, a priest who heads the department of liturgy and the sacraments at the Insitut Catholiquein Paris and who is overseeing the reactivated interior of Notre Dame, denied accusations that a “radical transformation” is afoot. He did, however, describe a series of proposed alterations and new features meant to better accommodate a more diverse swath of visitors. As Drouin put it, his aim is for Notre Dame to rise from the literal ashes as a sacred religious space possessing a sharpened focus on welcoming and informing those “who are not always from a Christian Culture.”

“Chinese visitors may not necessarily understand the Nativity,” he explained to AFP.

These proposed revamps, some of which were mentioned above in the excerpt from The Spectator, include projecting Bible quotes onto the cathedral walls in multiple languages and renovating the cathedral’s side chapels, which were already in a state of disrepair prior to the fire, to serve as small galleries featuring “portraits from the 16th and 18th century that will be in dialogue with modern art objects.” New and more comfortable benches equipped with small individual lamps would also replace the cathedral’s traditional straw chairs. As detailed by AFP, plans also call for a lighting overhaul including “softer lights at head height” that would better illuminate the cavernous space while providing more intimacy to those attended mass or a special concert.

“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,” said Drouin in response to the criticism, much of which has been focused on the introduction of modern art into designated areas of the cathedral.

Other major proposed changes would find visitors entering the cathedral through a large central door instead of side entrances as was the case pre-fire and the relocation of most of the confessionals to the first floor. The alter will reportedly remain in place.

Despite assurances from Drouin that the proposed interior renovation plan in question (again, it is reportedly not the only one to be reviewed) is not extreme and, in some instances, has precedent, the condemnation—at least as it has been depicted in conservative media—has been swift and strong. Per The Telegraph, a “majority” of the scientific committee overseeing restoration have qualms with the interior renovation plans but the Archbishop of Paris and General Jean-Louis Georgelin, who is leading the massive and frequently drama-courting project, are intent on moving things along.

“’Can you imagine the administration of the Holy See allowing something like this in the Sistine Chapel?” pondered a “senior source” who had reviewed the plans to The Telegraph. “It would be unimaginable. We are not in an empty space here.”

“This is political correctness gone mad,” the unnamed source added. “They want to turn Notre-Dame into an experimental liturgical showroom that exists nowhere else whereas it should be a landmark where the slightest change must be handled with great care.”

AN will report back when interior restoration plans at Notre Dame Cathedral, which has been altered, renovated, and repaired countless times over its roughly 850-year history, are solidified.