France approves the controversial interior redesign of Notre Dame Cathedral

Lumière Verte

France approves the controversial interior redesign of Notre Dame Cathedral

The interior of Notre Dame Cathedral on Île de la Cité in Paris, pictured in 2014. (Atibordee Kongprepan/Flickr/ CC BY-ND 2.0)

A controversy-generating revamp of the fire-ravaged Notre-Dame de Paris interior was blessed with the formal green light late last week by France’s 20-person National Heritage and Architecture Commission (CNPA).

As reported by Agence France-Presse, members of the commission did have qualms with—or outright reject—a small handful of planned changes to the landmark French Gothic cathedral but were otherwise copasetic with various aspects of the inclusivity-minded, public art-showcasing overhaul led by Father Gilles Drouin. One planned element that the committee did not immediately approve and requested further prototypes for were new benches with integrated personal lamps that would replace the cathedral’s traditional straw seating.

As previously detailed by AN, the proposed changes sparked considerable outrage when leaked ahead of last week’s CNPA vote. A veritable chorus of critical voices spoke out in conservative-leaning French news sources including daily newspaper Le Figaro; what’s more, numerous right-wing media international outlets on both sides of the Atlantic quickly spread the furor over plans to transform the world-famous medieval house of worship into what some opponents called a “Woke Disneyland.”

“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.”

Notably, Le Figaro published an open letter entitled “Notre-Dame de Paris: What the fire spared, the diocese wants to destroy” ahead of last week’s approval. The letter was signed by 100 public figures from a variety of backgrounds, all of them in opposition to the proposed changes.

Drouin, meanwhile, has defended the modernization and said that they will not yield a “radical transformation” but instead simply render Notre Dame more welcoming to the countless number of international visitors who visit the sacred Parisian site each year. The revamp also aims to make the cathedral, which has been altered and renovated a countless number of times over its 850-year history, more comfortable for contemporary worshippers and those attending special concerts in the hallowed space. In addition to the under-consideration seating overhaul, the lighting would be reworked to be softer and more intimate, Bible verses in different languages would potentially be projected onto the cathedral walls, visitor circulation would be reconfigured so that a front entrance would be used in lieu of side doors, and public art installations would be on view within Notre Dame’s infrequently used 19th-century confessionals, which would be relocated to the first floor as part of the scheme. Per the AFP, works by artists such as Ernest Pignon-Ernest, Anselm Kiefer, and Louise Bourgeois have all been floated as being fit for potential displays.

“We are very satisfied with this decision which respects the broad principles that we outlined, including the work on the lighting and the guidance for visitors,” said Drouin in a statement shared by the AFP following the much-watched vote.

Speaking with the New York Times, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, who serves as rector of Notre Dame Cathedral, further defended the interior modernization plans. “The idea is that the faithful, or visitors, are first struck by the grandeur, by the beauty of Notre-Dame,” Chauvet explained, going on to note that the proposed changes are meant to “bring a little more sense to the visitors.”

“Don’t think we’re going to make Disneyland,” he added.

Unlike the interior restoration/modernization work overseen by church officials, the exterior architecture of Notre Dame Cathedral, which was almost completely lost in the horrific April 2019 inferno, will not boast any modern flourishes and is being rebuilt under the auspices of the French government to replicate the structure in its pre-fire state. Work on the massive (and rarely harmonious) effort is slated to wrap up ahead of the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.