France Approves Controversial Plan to Renovate Notre-Dame Cathedral

An aerial view of the exterior of the cathedral, its damaged roof mostly covered by white tarp. An enormous crane looms over the building
An aerial view of the ongoing efforts to reconstruct Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral, pictured in June 2021. Photo by Bertrand Guay / AFP / Getty Images

France’s National Heritage and Architecture Commission approved a plan to renovate the interior of the historic Notre-Dame Cathedral on Thursday of last week, reports the Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Put forth by the diocese of Paris, the proposal calls for the modernization of the cathedral’s interior as it rebuilds from a devastating fire, which destroyed much of its roof in April 2019. Advocates argue that the approved plan will make Notre-Dame “even more beautiful and welcoming” for the millions of people who visit the site each year, according to a diocese press release. Critics, however, say that the renovations will reduce the standing of the historical building into a theme park.

“The church is 2,000 years old — it is an old lady,” says Didier Rykner, the editor in chief of art magazine La Tribune de l’Art, reports Constant Méheut for the New York Times.  “It has a history that we must respect, that today’s people cannot erase with a stroke of the pen.”

Major changes include the addition of softer mood lighting, hung at head-level, and new light projections, which will shine short Bible quotes in multiple languages onto the cathedral’s walls, per the New York Times.

Visitors will now be able to enter the cathedral through its grand central doors rather than the side entrance as previously directed. The diocese also plans to rearrange altars and other items to free up space for people to move around, per the Times

Per the Times, designers plan to move a group of little-used 19th-century confessionals to the ground floor to create a space for displays of modern and contemporary art. (No decisions about artists have been set in stone, but the names of street artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest, painter Anselm Kiefer and painter-sculptor Louise Bourgeois have been floated by the culture ministry, per the AFP).

The commission rejected some details of the diocese’s plan, including a proposal to remove statues from some chapels, per the Times. Experts have also asked to review a prototype of newly proposed benches, which would replace the traditional straw chairs. In theory, the benches might be designed to descend into the floor when not in use—freeing up more space for tourists, reports the AFP.

France Approves Controversial Plan to Renovate Notre-Dame Cathedral
A devastating fire consumed the cathedral’s 19th-century spire and two-thirds of its roof on April 15, 2019. The blaze also damaged some parts of the interior, pictured here on the day after the disaster.  Photo by Ludovic Marin / AFP / Getty Images

Yet the plan has provoked ire from conservative onlookers who argue that the renovations will damage the cultural integrity of the historic building, as Vincent Noce reports for the Art Newspaper. More than 100 academics and public figures signed an open letter against the plan in the conservative French newspaper Le Figaro last week, arguing that the proposal “completely distorts the decor and the liturgical space” of the cathedral. Speaking with conservative British paper the Telegraph, Maurice Culot, a Paris-based architect, complained that its renovations would turn the inside of the cathedral into a “politically correct Disneyland.”

When news of the proposal first leaked in November, Father Gilles Drouin, the priest in charge of interior renovations, told the AFP that the church’s proposed renovations were not radical.

“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,” Drouin says.

“For eight centuries, Notre Dame de Paris has undergone constant evolution,” he adds, speaking with the Art Newspaper early this month. “The Church intends to renew the tradition of commissions to living artists.”

French cultural authorities have been working around the clock to restore the famed Gothic cathedral since April 2019, when a blaze consumed two-thirds of its roof, destroyed its spire and wreaked havoc on some parts of the interior. French president Emmanuel Macron has stated that the renovations might be completed as soon as 2024, when Paris is set to host the Summer Olympics. But most experts assume that the painstaking restoration process will actually take closer to 10, 20 or even 40 years.

With regards to exterior renovations, the French government plans to reconstruct Notre-Dame’s roof “exactly as it was” before the fire. Workers have already begun the painstaking process of seeking out historic oak trees, which they will use to recreate the roof’s famous 13th-century wooden lattice and its iconic 19th-century spire.

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