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Leaked plans for Notre Dame’s interior update cause concern

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John Burger - published on 11/29/21

Critics fear beloved cathedral could lose sense of the sacred, take on qualities of a Disney theme park.

Even before the embers of the 2019 Notre Dame de Paris fire cooled down, there’s been controversy over how it will be rebuilt, beginning with the ambitious deadline of 2024 proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Now, however, that controversy has gotten very hot.

A leaked report on plans for the interior of the beloved cathedral has suggested that the sacred space might end up looking more like a Disney theme park. 

“Paris’ fire-ravaged Notre-Dame cathedral risks resembling a ‘politically correct Disneyland’ under controversial plans for its renovation seen by the Daily Telegraph,” that British newspaper said November 26. “Critics have warned that the world-famous cathedral will be turned into an “experimental showroom” under plans to dramatically change the inside of the medieval building.”

Henry Samuel and Tim Stanley, writing in the Telegraph, said this:

Under the proposed changes, confessional boxes, altars and classical sculptures will be replaced with modern art murals, and new sound and light effects to create “emotional spaces.”

There will be themed chapels on a “discovery trail,” with an emphasis on Africa and Asia, while quotes from the Bible will be projected onto chapel walls in various languages, including Mandarin.

The final chapel on the trail will have a strong environmental emphasis.

However, Fr. Gilles Drouin, who is in charge of the project to rework the interior, told French news agency AFP that the design is not as radical as it’s been made out to be.

He detailed several improvements, including replacing the traditional straw chairs with more comfortable benches equipped with small lamps; softer illumination at head level instead of light cast down from the high ceiling, and the ability to enter from the main doors rather than side doors.

The objective of the renovation, Fr. Drouin said, is to preserve Notre-Dame as a religious place that can better welcome and inform the public “who are not always from a Christian culture,” explained AFP. “Chinese visitors may not necessarily understand the Nativity,” said the priest. 

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.

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.

But Maurice Culot, a prize-winning Paris-based architect, urbanist, theorist and critic who has seen the plans, told the Telegraph, “It’s as if Disney were entering Notre-Dame. … What they are proposing to do to Notre-Dame would never be done to Westminster Abbey or Saint Peter’s in Rome. It’s a kind of theme park and very childish and trivial given the grandeur of the place.”

Author Rod Dreher, who also saw the plans set to be unveiled December 9, added at his blog: “Down comes all the medieval stuff, including stained glass, and up goes abstract modern art.”

Stanley wrote in a sidebar to the Telegraph article, “The basic idea is that the tourists who come to Notre Dame have no idea what Catholics believe, so here’s a chance to teach them.”

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