Officials overseeing reconstruction of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame announced, on Sept. 18, that the landmark would open in time for the Paris Olympics in 2024. Good! However, the UK Telegraph has just run an article based on leaked plans to modernize the cathedral’s interior, creating what the newspaper calls a “politically correct Disneyland.”
Might that spark a controversy likely to delay any 2024 reopening? For two years, international attention has been focused on whether the exterior would be an authentic rebuild rather than a modernist mashup of the building. Now it seems that plans to mash up the interior are sneaking around behind the world’s back.
The Telegraph suggests that interior items that survived the fire of April 15, 2019, such as confessional boxes, altars, and classical sculptures, would be replaced with “modern art murals,” plus sound and light effects to create “emotional spaces,” and other features uncongenial to a faithful restoration.
Fild Media reports that a “catechumenal path” – catechism lite – would be used to evangelize visitors, especially those from outside the Christian and Catholic faiths. The path would eventually end at a chapel dedicated to ‘reconciled creation,’ a concept emphasized in Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ encyclical.
Paris-based architect Maurice Culot criticized the plan:
What they are proposing to do to Notre Dame would never be done to Westminster Abbey or St. Peter’s in Rome. It’s a kind of theme park and very childish and trivial given the grandeur of the place.
Le Figaro, which got “synthesis photographs” illustrating the plan, suggests that new, more colorful stained-glass windows and other lighting effects in various naves “gives an impression of an airport runway, or even of a parking lot.”
Cathedral officials, according to a report in the National Catholic Register (based in Ohio), immediately regretted some of the “exaggerations” in the press. A spokeswoman for the Paris diocese, Karine Dalle, asserted that the details would not be finalized until next March, and tried to put the leaked plan into context:
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!
Sure, maybe it is “much more than that,” but it is also a battle between tradition and contemporary art – one that most observers of (and, you’d think, donors to) the cathedral’s reconstruction thought had already been settled.
The assumption is that many visitors from other cultures do not understand the cathedral and its works of painting and sculpture that miraculously survived the conflagration. Many visitors from Catholic and other western cultures probably understand it just as little. Nor is it clear that the renovation now being planned will help them understand, wherever they are from. It may be that visitors from other cultures want no less than most visitors to experience a faithful rebuilding of the great cathedral, inside and out.
Why ruin the experience for devoted and knowledgeable Catholics and the many, many others who merely seek to indulge a taste for beauty or history, in order to offer a dubious assistance to the uninitiated? Why not instead provide the latter with the sort of headphone guides that museums offer to patrons? Such digital docents, which barely require even literacy, would be far less expensive than the $60 million or so these cockeyed renovations are expected to cost.
I have little doubt that toute la France will rise up and smite this desecration of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, of which Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame spoke truly: “When a man understands the art of seeing, he can trace the spirit of an age and the features of a king even in the knocker on a door.”