A recent Daily Telegraph article electrified the otherwise tranquil proceedings of clearing wreckage and stabilizing support structures in the 858-year-old church. Parisian architect Maurice Culot sounded the alarm that the plan for the interior decoration would be as if “Disney were entering Notre Dame.” Other critics accused the church of bowing before the altar of “political correctness.” Panic buttons lit up throughout the Anglosphere, recalling previous fears that the church’s roof would become a swimming pool or a car park.
But what is the hair-pulling about, really? People wept as they watched the cathedral burn, but did they know what was inside? Was it the loss of the stained glass, the statues, or the paintings that they mourned? Not until Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris fire brigade, rushed out with the relic of Christ’s crown of thorns was there general awareness of what treasures the cathedral contained.
Now critics dread the potential introduction of “modern art objects” in the two dozen-plus side chapels. But how many people remember that, pre-fire, they were an ill-kept hodgepodge generally passed over by tourists in search of an Instagram-worthy shot of the windows?
Fewer hot takes and more studied responses would serve the ancient church better. Most reactions are based on the plan for the new interior presented in May by the Rev. Gille Drouin, installed last year as a canon of the cathedral to oversee the renovation. The design calls for a “catechetical path,” in which the church’s new point of entry would be the central portal confronting the viewer with the full majesty of the space. The reconfiguration would also make better use of the side chapels, each adapted to recount salvation history from Genesis to Christ’s resurrection to the life of the church today.
Celebrated monuments that miraculously escaped the fire — the bronze crucifix given by Napoleon III, the marble Notre Dame de Paris, the 14th-century carved choir stalls, and the crown of thorns entombed in the apse — would all feature in a single coherent itinerary.
Cathedral restorers hope to collaborate with the Louvre for the restoration of “the Mays,” 76 large paintings of the Acts of the Apostles donated between 1630 and 1707 by Parisian goldsmiths. Today, some are randomly placed in the side chapels and others are in museums. The plan would return them to the nave, so that visitors would see the witness of the apostles lining the main axis of the church.
Drouin hopes to transform the cathedral, which welcomed 12 million people annually pre-pandemic, into a space that is truly “catholic,” or universal. The plan proposes five chapels for five continents, in which Bible verses would be projected in local languages. Perhaps this is what spawned the Disney comparison, a kind of Catholic Epcot Center. But for an international icon in a city where 20 percent of residents are immigrants, what’s the problem with spreading a message of hope to every person who crosses that venerable threshold? And while some have dubbed it “Christianity for Dummies,” in a world where many Catholics are shaky on scripture and many young people are raised without religion, some back-to-basics catechetics might be in order.
While the new designs might not be to everyone’s taste, it is helpful to recall the true horrors that this cathedral has survived: French revolutionaries who beheaded its facade statues and repurposed the high altar to host a scantily clad “goddess of reason,” Napoleon’s gutting of the interior for his self-coronation as emperor, the collective neglect that spurred Victor Hugo to write “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” as a cri du coeur to preserve the building.
It is also worth remembering that St. Peter’s Basilica was knocked down and rebuilt by Pope Julius II in 1506 to similar outcry, and the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, one of the oldest Catholic churches in the world, has been rebuilt half a dozen times, each reconstruction adding a piece of “contemporary” art. In these cases, novelty in the name of catechesis has proved its worth. Indeed, the opportunity to commission new art could even revitalize long-stagnant Catholic patronage.
Regardless of attempts to turn Notre Dame’s renovators into cartoon villains, the reality is more nuanced. But nuance, unfortunately, attracts little limelight. Thus topics as seemingly tame as repairing a church after a fire become cultural flash points: Whether praising or panning, everyone gets a thrill.