A modern twist to the cathedral's interior can always be swept away again
Whisper it quietly, but most of the 12 million visitors that congregated every year at Notre-Dame de Paris until the heart-rending 2019 fire were not coming to praise the Almighty: confession was not offered, communion was untaken, the Eucharist unsaid. Like most visitors to global cathedrals, tourists came because they were “doing” Paris or Rome or London. So how should ecclesiastical authorities welcome them? With open arms or with a collecting box? With an embarrassed suggestion of a voluntary donation before ushering them in? Or with a more confident, non-discretionary full-price ticket and a more designed “cathedral experience”?
Faced with collapsing congregations, ageing infrastructure and spiralling maintenance costs, you can hardly blame the deans and deacons if they go for option two. That’s certainly what they’ve increasingly been doing, above all in “global” cities where the punters have deeper pockets into which they can dip.
Grappling with his multi-million post-fire rebuild of Notre-Dame, the Archbishop of Paris appears to have made the same call. According to reports, plans recently approved by the French state’s heritage authorities to “simplify” and improve the “visitor experience” will project quotations onto the walls, replace chairs with “high tech pews” and strip out confessional boxes, altars and classical sculptures to replace them with modern art, “discovery trails” and “sound and light effects.”
Some prominent Parisians were unimpressed. 100 leading French academic figures wrote to Le Figaro, saying the plans were “kitsch” and would “entirely distort the décor and liturgical space”. Others have condemned a “politically correct Disneyland” or a “woke theme park”.
But is this all a storm in a triforium? Consider a precedent. The oldest building (I believe) in continuous use in Europe is the Pantheon in Rome. Built for emperor Hadrian as a temple to all the gods and of almost ridiculous beauty (the emperor had the architect executed subsequently so that nothing could compete), it has been the church of Saint Mary and the Martyrs since 609. Today, no votive offerings burn to the pagan gods and no shrines drip with oil. In fact, you’d be forgiven for not even noticing that it is a consecrated church. And yet it still stands. And it is still one heck of a place. Go and join the global throngs if you haven’t been.
Similarly, all the confessional boxes, rood screens and polychromatic paintings of medieval faith have been ripped out of our own formerly catholic churches. In Westminster Abbey they have been replaced by new accretions: a mausoleum of classical monuments to statesmen and poets which no medieval priest would have considered godly. In short, good buildings evolve, old buildings have to evolve and religious practices can turn on a pin.
But should the Archbishop of Paris turn Notre-Dame into “cathedro-Disney”? Recent precedents are bad. Most supposedly “contextual“ insertions into historic churches or public buildings, descend through a process of professional competition and self-regard into parodies of poor design (though the new staircase by Westminster Abbey is a divine exception).
The plans certainly sound tawdry, even ungodly. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. If this generation of ecclesiasts make a mess of some side chapels, insert lumpen ugliness into the nave and project inanities onto the pilasters then the next generation — if they are bold enough — can, like Jesus and the moneylenders, sweep them from the building.
Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets