Plans to Install Contemporary Stained-Glass Art in the Notre-Dame Cathedral Spark Outrage

An online petition signed by more than 125,000 people has harshly condemned the French president's proposal.

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris before the fire. Photo courtesy of Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris.

A proposal to install contemporary stained-glass artworks in the side chapels of Notre-Dame in Paris has sparked outrage. The original windows by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc were not damaged in 2019 when the cathedral was ravaged by a devastating fire, but suggestions have been made that they should be displayed in a new museum dedicated to the history of Notre-Dame and its recent restoration process.

The French president Emmanuel Macron first announced the plans during a visit to the cathedral on December 8. He said he would initiate a competition inviting contemporary artists to submit designs for new stained-glass windows for six of the seven chapels on the cathedral’s south aisle. The idea came from Laurent Ulrich, archbishop of Paris, who suggested too the Élysée Palace that these new works could be a state commission.

An online petition in favor of keeping the original windows in place has been signed by more than 125,000 people. Launched by the online art magazine La Tribune de l’Art, the open letter argues that Viollet-le-Duc imagined Notre-Dame as “a coherent whole” and that the stained-glass windows in the ambulatory, choir, and transept are intentionally complemented by grisaille windows in the nave chapels.

“Here there is a search for architectural unity and a hierarchy of space that is an integral part of his work,” the petition read. “What sense does it make to restore the cathedral to its last known historical state (before 15 April 2019), that of Viollet-le-Duc, only to deprive the building of an essential element that Viollet-le-Duc wanted? Who gave the Head of State a mandate to alter a cathedral that does not belong to him, but to everyone?”

“If these windows were to be replaced, they would certainly end up in storage crates,” the letter also speculated, “because exhibiting them in the museum would actually double the scandal of their removal.”

Didier Rykner, founder and editor of La Tribune de l’Art, also published an op-ed suggesting that contemporary stained-glass would be a welcome addition to the cathedral’s north tower, which currently has plain windows.

“It would also have a magnificent symbolic role: it was in the north tower, when they fought the fire that threatened to bring down the bells and, in turn, the cathedral, that the firefighters risked their lives to save the monument,” he wrote. “Paying tribute to the firemen, bringing new stained-glass windows to Notre-Dame without vandalizing Viollet-le-Duc’s work, giving future visitors more to see: this common-sense solution could suit everyone.”

A proposal to replace the original stained-glass in Notre Dame was shot down in 2020. France’s then-culture minister Roselyn Bachelot claimed that it would violate the Venice Charter, which offers international guidelines for the conservation of historic buildings, according to The European Conservative.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Macron suggested that the destroyed spire could be replaced by a “contemporary architectural gesture,” the design of which would be found through an international competition. The idea faced fierce backlash and was eventually abandoned. New liturgical furnishings have been designed by Guillaume Bardet and were unveiled last year.

During his visit last month to check up on restoration work, Macron also declared that the progress was on track for the partially reconstructed cathedral to reopen to the public in December 2024, with ongoing final repair work expected to carry on until 2028. The new Musée de l’Œuvre in the Hôtel-Dieu was also announced.


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