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Experts approve controversial changes for Notre-Dame cathedral

The designs include pieces of modern art, digital projections and revamped lighting. Opponents say the site is being turned into a cultural ‘immersive project’ but supporters say it is not revolutionary

Plans for the renovation and redevelopment of parts of of Notre-Dame de Paris have been approved by experts Pic: Agnieszka Gaul / Shutterstock

Renovation plans for the interior of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral have been approved by French heritage experts despite objections from several public figures 

“The experts have taken a favourable view on the interior redevelopment programme, with just two reservations: the placement of the statues that they would like to keep in the chapels and the benches, which the clergy will have to reconsider,” France’s culture ministry told journalists at AFP. 

Senator Albéric de Montgolfier, president of the Commission nationale du patrimoine et de l’architecture, through which the experts met to discuss the plans, added that they “were also opposed to the transformation of the choir into a prayer space, fearing that the ground which dates from the eighteenth century, would be ruined by worshippers and tourists.

“No object or painting which was located inside the cathedral before the fire will leave it,” he said, adding that the redevelopment will help people to “rediscover Notre-Dame in another way,” through a “purer vision” which “corresponds better with the one at its origin.”

The Diocese of Paris is looking to use the restoration of the cathedral, parts of which were destroyed by a fire on April 15, 2019, to try to optimise the space for visitors before it reopens in 2024.

Read more: Notre-Dame: Fire believed accidental, as France reacts

In the cathedral’s new interior, worshippers and visitors could therefore be met with works by urban artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest and sculptors Anselm Kiefer and Louise Bourgeoise, reports Le Monde. 

These new pieces would be “in dialogue” with works by celebrated 17th century French painters Charles Le Brun or Le Nain brothers. 

Benches on wheels could replace the current individual chairs, and lighting would be installed at head height. 

Notre-Dame’s canon the Rev. Gilles Drouin, who has worked on the redevelopment with architect Jean-Marie Duthilleul, described this as an “enveloping light to give the feeling of being at one… What we are doing is in no way revolutionary.”

The plans also include a “deep clean” of Notre-Dame’s 14 chapels, which will enable the rediscovery of Les Mays, large paintings created yearly between 1630 and 1707 by the great artists of the time. 

A visitor route plotted around the edge of the church would take people through the story of the Bible, punctuated by spaces for meditation and digital projections of Bible verses in different languages. 

Six of the seven chapels to the north of the nave would be dedicated to books from the Old Testament: Genesis, Abraham, Exodus, the prophetic books, Song of Songs and the Book of Wisdom.

After passing by the ‘crown of thorns’ relic, the visitor will reach the ‘light’ of the Virgin and Child: the statue that was found intact after the fire.

Father Drouin has said that the renovations will allow the cathedral to offer a “better welcome” to the public, while “respecting religion.”

Future visitors would enter the cathedral through the central door rather than the current entrance on the south side. 

Father Drouin has claimed that this will enable people to “be struck by the symmetry of the building, seized by its elevation.”

However, the redevelopment project plans have been condemned in an open letter published in Le Figaro and signed by around 100 people, including radio and television presenter Stéphane Bern and philosopher Alain Finkielkraut.   

In this letter, the signatories write that the “resurrection” of the partially destroyed cathedral “is gravely compromised by a development project on the inside of the monument.

“The Diocese of Paris wants to make the most of the restoration works to transform the inside of Notre-Dame into a project which completely distorts the decor and the liturgical space. 

“The project plans to install removable benches, lighting which changes according to the season, video projections on the walls etc. in other words the same fashionable (and therefore already terribly outdated) ‘cultural mediation’ devices that one finds in all ‘immersive’ cultural projects, where silliness jostles with kitsch.”

The Telegraph has described the new vision of Notre-Dame as a “woke Disneyland”, and it has also been criticised in newspaper columns around the world.

Before the 2019 fire, Notre-Dame welcomed 12 million visitors and hosted 2,500 services each year. 

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