Sacré bleu! Plans are afoot to turn Notre Dame cathedral, once it’s restored, into what some have called a ‘politically correct Disneyland’.
The plans, yet to be rubber-stamped, will turn the cathedral into an ‘experimental showroom’, with confessional boxes, altars and classical sculptures replaced with modern art murals. New sound and light effects will be introduced to create ‘emotional spaces’. Themed chapels on a ‘discovery trail’, with an emphasis on Africa and Asia, will pop up. And Bible quotations will be projected onto chapel walls in various languages, including Mandarin. The last chapel on the new trail will have an environmental emphasis.
Defenders of the new plan are bound to say that Notre Dame, before the heart-breaking fire of 2019, was already an artifice. The sublime cathedral, begun in 1163, was heavily adapted in a Gothic Revival style in the late nineteenth century by Viollet-le-Duc.
The difference was that Viollet-le-Duc was a highly intelligent, brilliant architect who wanted to adapt the cathedral to fit with its medieval origins. His changes to the cathedral were added in the same spirit in which it was first built: serious, intelligent, medieval.
The changes suggested in these new plans are none of these things. Modern architects and priests rarely have the intellectual, historical understanding that their nineteenth-century predecessors had. If you don’t know much about the past, you can draw only from your scant, contemporary knowledge bank. You are bound to produce something fairly limited if you depend only on that bank, and don’t have the massive, beautiful resources of the past to borrow from.
After that horrific 2019 fire, there were some suggestions that the exterior of Notre Dame should be changed to suit a similar, limited understanding of what churches can look like at their most sublime. Edouard Philippe, then the French prime minister, wanted to launch an international competition to rebuild the destroyed roof and spire, possibly with a modern design ‘that bears the mark of our time’. Idiotic suggestions included a swimming pool tacked on to the cathedral. The contest was swiftly scrapped. The spire, roof and medieval wooden beams will all be rebuilt closely to the original designs
Those suggestions were – thank God – defeated, not least because the public, unlike lots of modern architects, have a great affection for the past. Architecture is the great public art. If you don’t like a hideous sculpture in the Royal Academy, you don’t have to go there. You can’t avoid the hideous new tower blocks by the Thames on your way into work.
Some modern architects vie with each other to produce not very attractive buildings. It was what Kingsley Amis described as the sort of taste that is approved down at the club. Who cares if the public doesn’t like your new building as long as your fellow architects down at the club like it?
With exceptional buildings, close to the public’s heart, like Notre Dame – or, say, Westminster Abbey or Windsor Castle – architects can’t get away with doing the hideous things that go down well at the club.
Well, they can’t on the outside of buildings, anyway. The exterior of Notre Dame is built into the soul of Parisians – and the world. Meddle with it at your peril. And so radical changes for the exterior were vetoed and it is being rebuilt as it was before the fire.
But, inside, you can get away with more – as Notting Hill hedge funders know when they buy a charming Victorian terraced house. Even they have grown used to the exterior beauties of classical, terraced-house fronts – so they don’t mess around them. But, inside, they rip out as much detail as possible – the cornices, even the walls.
Because people aren’t quite so familiar with the inside of Notre Dame, there is greater wriggle room for the anti-history brigade to prevail. Not surprisingly, in an era of increasingly ahistorical priests, that brigade includes the Archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, who said the proposed, banal new changes would ‘bring the cathedral into the 21st century while preserving its own identity in the spirit of the Christian tradition.’
Another of the anti-history brigade is Christian Rousselot, the director general of the Notre Dame Foundation. He said that a ‘visitors’ discovery trail’ will ‘provide the keys to half the planet that doesn’t know what a cathedral is.’
“‘This trail going from north to south from the shadow to the light will depict the major moments of the Bible to explain in the most intelligible way to common mortals, whether Chinese or Swedish, what it all means. Foreign visitors see signs and magnificent paintings but don’t understand a thing. Images and sculptures and paintings count but so do words. So there are plans to project on certain words and expressions in Mandarin, French or Spanish and English.’
My God, how patronising to Chinese, Swedes and any other non-French nationals! Actually, a huge amount of foreigners completely understand the images of Christianity because, once, they were semi-universal. And, of course, the origins of Christianity aren’t French. They are borne out of the Herodian Kingdom of Judea, part of the Roman Empire, in the first century AD. For over 2,000 years, Christianity was spread through the Church, very largely through images that worked above and beyond language, often to illiterate congregations.
That semi-universal understanding of Christianity is in decline, partly thanks to an allied decline in educational standards and Christian religious observation. But, despite that decline, millions of visitors still came to Notre Dame every year – not in search of a dim explanation of the history of Christianity, but in search of the sublime: extreme beauty of architecture, sculpture and art. Yes, by all means install subtle captions explaining what those original images, hopefully restored after the fire, mean. But don’t let the explanations replace the original, sublime art.
It’s hard to write about churches without quoting Philip Larkin’s poem Church Going. But he brilliantly explains that appreciation for the sublime that exists, even if you don’t know what a reredos is:
“‘A serious house on serious earth it is,In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,Are recognised, and robed as destinies.And that much never can be obsolete,Since someone will forever be surprisingA hunger in himself to be more serious.’
That seriousness disappears into thin air the moment you try to explain it. Let the new Notre-Dame preserve some of its pre-fire mystery.