Plans to replace the gothic ambience of Notre Dame cathedral with a softer vibe of modern art and warm lighting have raised a few eyebrows, but the priest in charge denies any radical transformation is afoot.
With the cathedral set to reopen in 2024 — five years after a fire devastated much of its roof and spire — church authorities are putting forward new plans on December 9 for how the public will experience the iconic Parisian landmark.
They include Bible quotes to be projected in multiple languages on the walls and new art installations in place of its little used 19th century confessionals, said Father Gilles Drouin, who is charged with reworking the interior, in an interview with AFP.
Gone would be the traditional straw chairs, to be replaced by more comfortable benches with their own little lamps to brighten the gloom — perhaps even able to disappear into the floor when not in use to leave more room for tourists.
Rather than lighting cast down from its cavernous ceiling, there will be “softer lights at head height” to give a more intimate feel to the 2,400 masses and 150 concerts held annually.
The National Heritage and Architecture Commission will hear the detailed plans next week, but already some conservative hackles have been raised.
Britain’s Spectator magazine warned of a “politically correct Disneyland” that would be full of “emotional spaces” and cosmopolitan “discovery trails”.
Drouin denied the plans were radical, however. He said the objective was to preserve Notre-Dame as a religious place that can better welcome and inform the public “who are not always from a Christian culture”.
“Chinese visitors may not necessarily understand the Nativity,” he said.
The lesson from the cathedral’s existing chapel dedicated to 19th century Chinese martyr Saint-Paul Tchen is that visitors from that country will stop and light candles because there are banners in Mandarin, he added.
One major change for visitors will be that they enter from the large central door, rather than the side entrances. The altar will remain in place but other items such as the tabernacle and baptistery will be rejigged, while most of the confessionals will move to the first floor, leaving only four in the main section.
Side chapels, which were in a “terrible state” even before the fire, will be entirely renovated with a focus on artworks including “portraits from the 16th and 18th century that will be in dialogue with modern art objects.”
He said this would include a “cycle of tapestries”, without giving details. “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,” he said.
Notre-Dame cathedral dates back to the 12th century. It was largely adapted in the late 1800s by architect Viollet-le-Duc, though in keeping with the Gothic style that was having a renaissance at the time.