Images of the iconic spire of Notre Dame collapsing into a blaze on the evening of April 15, 2019 are still vivid in the minds of many around the world.
The structure of the famous Gothic cathedral in Paris was finally secured last summer and now the restoration can start.
The Archdiocese of Paris will soon present its interior design plan to the French National Commission for Heritage and Architecture (CNPA), but leaks of information about the plans have already raised concern among some.
A concerted effort
The person in charge of the project is Gilles Drouin, priest of the diocese of Évry and director of the Higher Institute of Liturgy of the Catholic University of Paris.
He was selected in June 2019 to design plans to make Notre Dame fit for worship after the devastating fire.
He was also asked to improve the reception of tourists, as well as to provide a more efficient means of showcasing the works of art in the cathedral, all problems that predated the fire.
Drouin has developed options in parallel, careful to consider both pastoral and heritage aspects.
The project took shape with the help of architects, lighting and sound specialists, set designers and artists.
Then, the different options were submitted to heritage professionals.
“Each stage was validated by Mgr Michel Aupetit of Paris”, explains Father Drouin.
The nave, place of liturgy
At the request of the archbishop, the priest mainly leaned on the nave, place of worship of the people. He concentrates there as a liturgical space, refusing to “treat the choir like a theater stage”.
Among his proposals is to place a monumental baptistery at the entrance to the cathedral.
Soft lighting will illuminate the pews to bring the congregation out of the shadows.
The idea is to further help the faithful to participate actively in the liturgical celebration and to avoid transforming the cathedral into a “theatre”.
This lighting of the nave would highlight the axis of the cathedral, from the baptistery to the large cross which dominates the choir and which resisted the fire.
While the space was specifically designed to meet the needs of the liturgy, it was also designed for better access for millions of tourists.
A catechumenal journey
“The reception of the public was lacking, both logistically and pastorally”, underlines Father Drouin.
The public entered through the southern portal and exited through the north, contrary to the medieval logic which led the faithful from darkness to light.
Visitors will now enter through the central portal, discovering the axis of the great nave.
By taking the northern collateral, they will be able to follow a catechumenal path.
“It will not be an educational itinerary, but simply the proposal of experiences through beauty”, specifies Drouin.
Existing works will be showcased.
Among them, the famous big mayscomposed of 13 large paintings commissioned for the cathedral in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the superb carved choir walls from the 14th century.
Contemporary works, such as paintings and tapestries, are also available to order.
Father Drouin hopes that the video projection and the insertion of biblical quotations in contemporary works will allow a deeper discovery of the Christian faith.
The side chapels will be the privileged space for this thematic journey.
These chapels were decorated in the 19th century by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, but some were stripped down a century later when the fashion for exposed stones triumphed.
Others are cluttered with poorly lit paintings.
All have generally been overlooked and there has been little concern for consistency.
The layout of the route should allow a more coherent visit.
Strong reactions and concerns
The reactions have been strong since the beginning of the discussions on the restoration of Notre-Dame.
Specialized media in France and abroad have expressed their concerns, particularly about interior decoration.
Even Catholics in Paris have raised concerns and demanded that the archdiocese do a better job of informing the public about the stages of the restoration project.
They called for a more open discussion and urged planners to act with the “utmost humility” in the face of a work of beauty destined to span the ages.
A number of the proposed changes shocked people. For example, some believe that projecting Bible verses in different languages would create a “Disneyland effect”.
Drouin readily acknowledged the critics. But he says earlier proposals that are now completely obsolete are still circulating and that may fuel fears.
He says there was never any question of painting contemporary frescoes in the side chapels.
The controversies that have arisen show that the Catholics of Paris are invested in the development and the future of their cathedral.
An important step comes on December 9 when the CNPA will issue its opinion on the project.
For the Archdiocese of Paris, the work of reflection is not yet complete.