Catholic church's proposed redesign of Notre Dame interior provokes outrage

Plans to revamp the fire-ravaged cathedral with contemporary art and multilingual projections of Bible quotes have been compared to Disneyland

Proposals by Catholic church officials to modernise Notre Dame cathedral's interior, which are due to be presented to France's national cultural heritage commission on 9 December, have drawn a wave of criticism © RNDP / David Bordes

Proposals by Catholic church officials to modernise Notre Dame cathedral's interior, which are due to be presented to France's national cultural heritage commission on 9 December, have drawn a wave of criticism © RNDP / David Bordes

Will the fire-ravaged interior of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris be more like Disneyland than France’s most emblematic place of worship when it reopens after a major restoration? So fear the outraged critics of a new interior design for the monument—planned by Catholic church officials—which was presented during a video conference earlier this year.

Although the project has not been formally announced, Father Gilles Drouin provided an overview during an online conference in May for the general secretariat of Catholic education in France, which has been posted on YouTube. Last Friday, the British conservative newspaper The Telegraph denounced the reimagined Notre Dame as a “politically correct Disneyland” and an “experimental showroom”.

Father Drouin, the director of the liturgical institute of Paris, said during the presentation that he was chosen two years ago by the archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, to “revamp the inner space” of the cathedral. He proposes a sound-and-light trail along the side chapels, providing a “fruitful dialogue with contemporary art”. He plans to replace “the straw chairs, which occupy 80% of the space” with luminous “mobile benches”. Most of these could be removed during weekdays to leave more room for visitors. Altars in the chapels would also be displaced and only four confessionals maintained on the ground floor.

Drouin explained that Notre Dame “was not adapted to cope with large numbers of tourists”, which rose to 12 million before the cathedral was devastated by fire in 2019. Visitors “come for different reasons, most of them from non-Christian or post-Christian cultures”. So the chapels, some of which could be renamed after Asia, Africa and other themes, should display “multiple offerings” such as light projections of Bible quotes in foreign languages including Chinese. Drouin showed designs featuring a stained-glass window and a chapel wall covered in a contemporary abstract painting of clouds.

“It’s Notre Dame de Paris turned into Disneyland,” claims the Paris-based architect Maurice Culot, the author of several books on religious architecture in the 19th century. “It does not make any sense,” he tells The Art Newspaper. “We are rebuilding the cathedral and the spire as it was, with ancient materials like stone, wood and lead, and now we’ll have a theme park for foreign tourists inside. Why wasn’t the design entrusted to the same architects to maintain unity between the inside and outside of the building?” Pointing out that churches and cathedrals are owned by the state in France, he asks: “How could a priest choose, on his own, the interior decoration of a cathedral that belongs to the universal heritage of humanity and is being rebuilt with donations coming from all over the world?”

Culot’s concerns are shared by the French architectural historian Alexandre Gady, the author of a book on the history of Notre Dame. “Obviously the project lacks breadth and depth,” Gady says. However, he is more fearful for the fate of the cathedral’s forecourt, which is owned by the city, and deplores the planned transformation of the nearby historic hospital, Hôtel Dieu, into a shopping centre.

Father Drouin’s proposed interior redesign of Notre Dame will be submitted to France’s national cultural heritage commission on 9 December and the culture minister, Roselyne Bachelot, may have the final say on matters like the removal of the ancient stained glass. But Culot argues that the government “has already approved a compromise by leaving the Church the initiative for the interior of the cathedral”.

Father Drouin has denied the proposed overhaul of Notre Dame is radical. “For eight centuries, Notre Dame de Paris has undergone constant evolution and the Church intends to renew the tradition of commissions to living artists,” he says. In an interview this week with AFP, the French news agency, he defended the plans to welcome visitors “who are not always from a Christian culture”, adding that Notre Dame observed more visitors from China lit candles in a chapel dedicated to a Chinese martyr after explanatory texts in Mandarin were installed.

Meanwhile, Jean-Louis Georgelin, the army general who leads the special agency in charge of Notre Dame’s reconstruction, is working against the clock to honour the commitment made by President Emmanuel Macron to reopen the monument before the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. Experts already admit that the works will not be completed and the spire will not be rebuilt by then, but Georgelin has promised to hold a Te Deum service in the cathedral on 16 April 2024, marking the fifth anniversary of the catastrophic fire. He could certainly do without a controversy that could further delay the restoration.

The latest debate comes a week after the Paris archbishop offered his resignation to the Pope after press claims that he had an affair with a woman in 2012. Michel Aupetit, who has been reportedly criticised for his authoritarian management style, acknowledged an “ambiguous” relationship but said it was platonic.