by Nicholas Boys Smith
Friday, 10
December 2021
Reaction
18:12

Don’t fret — Notre-Dame can survive a facelift

A modern twist to the cathedral's interior can always be swept away again
by Nicholas Boys Smith

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

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Simon Denis
Simon Denis
9 months ago

Of course it matters! This is a church we’re talking about. A very old, very distinguished, very beautiful church. To treat it in this way is arrogant, insensitive and destructive – no matter how light or reversible the damage. In terms of French politics, it upsets the always delicate balance between the class of reluctant republicans – only deprived of their last monarchical hopes in the 1870s – and the enthusiasts, whose shrine is “le pantheon”. How would they feel if some arrant, snotty little upstart – yes, you, Macron – decided to restore le pantheon to Catholic use and started by interring Chateaubriand or Charles X at its heart? Finally, your comment about the fabric destroyed under the Tudors is the last word in complacency. Do you realise how traumatic that was? Have you ever even considered the cultural catastrophe that it represents – the sheer scale of the loss? And it is in that complacency, that refusal to care very much, that easy but false assurance that nobody should get “worked up”, that we find the final, essential, contemptible defeatism of a certain strand of the centre-right. I’ll bet that such apparently imperturbable dullness would be mightily disturbed if we were talking about some attempt of the state to impose ideological decor on a mosque!

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
9 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

I mean whatever you might say about Napoleon he saved Notre-Dame from the fate of the old gothic Arras Cathedral that was considered one of the most beautiful. It was torn down after the Revolution. It was later rebuilt in neo-classical style in the 1820s – the old gothic style considered a red rag to republicans as a ‘reactionary style’ – not helped by the fact that Louis XVI and his wife are both buried in the first Gothic building the basilica of St Denis. Perhaps surprising to the very online now who see classicism as reactionary not republican and Gothic doesn’t really figure much. It was destroyed and rebuilt again during and after WW1.

As for the Tudors I think it was David Watkins who pointed out pace Pugin that the Reformation actually saved a lot of Britain’s medieval architecture because they weren’t subject to the conversion of old churches to Baroque style by the Tridentine edicts of the counter-Reformation. A quick glance through churches in Spain or France will reveal this. And frankly much of the Baroque is ugly with barleycorn Solomonic pillars lacking both the dignity, restraint and grace of the renaissance and (neo-)classical styles and the sublimity and verticality of the gothic.

Last edited 9 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
9 months ago

I agree about baroque architecture a “monstrous carbuncle” on ecclesiastical architecture, although Wren’s works are far more palatable than the Italian and (particularly) the Spanish versions. However, I’m afraid I can’t be that sanguine about the effects of the dissolution – too much was destroyed and many works were sold abroad to pay for Henry’s wars. This wasn’t the only attack on English art and culture, there was also the later Cromwellian devastation and the earlier destruction of William the Bas***d

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
9 months ago

The Normans destroyed wood buildings and replaced them with stone (Romanesque) ones, I am not sure much of value architecturally was lost and much was gained by England taking part in the revival of architecture that was passing through Western Europe, with monumental buildings being constructed for the first time since the fall of the Western Empire.

In terms of the quality of jewellery and especially illuminated manuscripts you may have a point.

Last edited 9 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
9 months ago

A great deal of value was lost. Also not all buildings, especially ecclesiastical architecture, were in timber. In particular, the loss of the Old Minister in Winchester is a tragedy. Added to this is the number of art works in gold and silver which were melted down for William to pay off his mercenaries. The loss was of distictive Anglo-Saxon works which was replaced by Continental works; basically a cultural distruction.

As an aside, we are alway being told that stone is superior to wood, perhaps that is so as far as durability is concerned, but timber buildings can be a beautiful as any stone building – just look at the stave churches of Norway.

Last edited 9 months ago by Linda Hutchinson
Simon Denis
Simon Denis
9 months ago

You are quite mistaken. England’s Reformation was Swiss in inspiration and so more destructive of gothic ornament than any amount of elite, Baroque improvement. Second, Spain has an abundance of surviving gothic. Third, Belgium has lots of Baroque because, as part of the Spanish Netherlands it endured the iconoclastic riots of 1567. When Alva moved in and restored Catholic dominance to the south, a lot of repairs were necessary. These were in the latest style. As for Watkin, maybe – but Pugin! You could not be more wrong. Pugin had no time for the Reformation at all – none; not a smidgin, not an iota. Nor did he make the mistake of thinking that a process which saw ninety per cent of English gothic art destroyed a form of “conservation”! One hundred buildings of cathedral type were demolished in toto by our swiss inspired Reformation – Lewes, Glastonbury, Reading, Colchester, Syon – the list goes on and on. Sticking in a Baldachino or a Rubens seems less drastic than that. Finally, your attitude to the Baroque is puritan and provincial. To dismiss the movement which various gave us Bernini, Borromini, Handel et al is absurd.

Andrew D
Andrew D
9 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Quite right. The cathedral at Santiago da Compostela is a wonderful marriage of Romanesque and Baroque

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
9 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

First – what do you mean by ‘Swiss’? The reformation in Britain was mainly Calvinist inspired. Calvin was based in Geneva, at that time not part of Switzerland but in alliance with them. Zwingli’s reformation in Zürich had little influence. And furthermore Calvin had far more influence in Scotland. For England the reformation was far more conservative – primarily an assertion of monarchical rights and removal of foreign intervention. Now, it’s true that the reformation became more Calvinist and iconoclastic over a hundred years. And yet perhaps that was just the natural backlash to a century of Catholic traitors and their misdeeds, to wit: attempted regicide, acts of subversion, aiding and abetting foreign (Spanish) invasion with an eye to a brutal subjugation of their historic freedoms and a brief spell in power under Mary that involved mass persecutions and executions.

Second, yes Spain has plenty of gothic architecture but this reflects its post Golden Age poverty and decline more than anything else.

Third, “restored Catholic dominance” seems a euphemistic way to describe the orgy of massacres, auto-de-fes and inquisitorial persecution that accompanied to reimposition of Spanish tyranny.

Finally my point was to contrast Watkin’s scholarship with Pugin’s mythology. Watkins, albeit a Catholic, was heavily critical of the historiography of Pugin amd Viollet-le-Duc and the Gothic revival in general. (Incidentally he considered both gothic and baroque as experimental deviations from the classical ideal.) Both saw it rooted in the moral and idealistic environment of the Middle Ages rather than a conscious aesthetic choice. Pugin saw his beloved Gothic as Catholicism embodied in stone and so ascribed the move away from it to the twin evils of the Reformation and the ‘pagan renaissance’ that he saw as its humanistic forebear. Watkins merely pointed out that, if you consider the average parish church rather than the grand cathedrals more medieval architecture was preserved here and improvements in Anglican churches were limited to tasteful Georgian pews and funerary monuments. Parish churches in areas under the effect of the counter-reformation are quite different. Yes great abbeys and cathedrals suffered through government (if not necessarily religious) confiscation though ultimately the same process happened in France (post-revolution), Spain (the confiscations of Mendizábal) or Italy (under the House of Savoy) in the last two cases also under royal patronage just as in England.

As for my taste, well it is a personal preference. As the poster stated above the more restrained and beautiful works of Wren (who I would hardly classify as baroque) are appealing but I cannot stand the exaggerated, overwraught and sentimental style of southern European baroque. Perhaps it is more palatable to those indoctrinated by the catechism.

The music of the era is of course is spectacular. Perhaps Wren and Handle benefited from a dose of protestant reserve.

Last edited 9 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Simon Denis
Simon Denis
9 months ago

You are out of date. All reputable historians of the English Reformation now accept that it was “Swiss” – yes, Calvin and Zwingli, for whom “Swiss” is the accepted term; they also accept that it was iconoclastic from Edward VI on. If you don’t believe me, see Peter Marshall’s “Heretics and Believers”.
Your denunciation of the Spanish Netherlands meanwhile is totally beside the point, which was that the English Reformation somehow “preserved” English gothic, whilst Belgium, staying Catholic, went Baroque. I repeat, Belgium only went Baroque thanks to the iconoclastic riots of 1567. That the repair also involved the repression of protestants is, for the purposes of this particular dispute, neither here nor there.
Spain’s decline, meanwhile, accelerated long after the mediaeval and Baroque periods – remember Velazquez? The Golden Age? So to ascribe the survival of Spanish gothic – which you initially denied – to Spanish decline is ridiculous.
As for your euphemism that the great abbeys of England “suffered” from government confiscation – the government confiscated their very fabric! Most of them no longer exist! Please don’t bother to quote the few, mutilated survivors at me.
As to the parish church, again any up to date history will reveal at once the scale of the losses there: no rood, no rood screen, no statues, no paintings, no glass – apart from rare survivals like Fairford – no music for at least a hundred years – no fabrics, few vestments – in fact, not much.
With respect, I put it to you that – in this instance – your arguments are flawed and do not stack up. I have no wish in saying so to be abrasive, by the way – and if I am, I apologise in advance. The question is: why – in this instance – do you offer these essentially flimsy theses? I hazard an answer: because in common with so many who risk confrontation with the ugly facts of the English Reformation, you flinch and wish it otherwise.

Last edited 9 months ago by Simon Denis
beancounting42
beancounting42
9 months ago

There are any number of places you could open up a Disneyesque Jesus Experience with a view to telling people about the history of the church. But Notre Dame is definitely not one of them. Plans for change are nothing short of scandalous. Take the example of the confessionals.These are not exhibits in a museum: they are the place where those in a state of sin make peace with God through their confessor. My response to a church that says “well they are not used as much as once they were” would be to tell them that if that is the case, they are not doing their job properly. We are all sinners and all of us in need of God’s Grace. Is nothing sacred?

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
9 months ago

The ungodliness of our modern world will return to bite us. Dawkins is a joke. How does he know if God exists, or not ? We know if Dawkins is a fool – that part is easy – but we cannot know if God exists. We can only believe. And belief – faith – is what we lack in our world. As for the moneylenders, the magnificence of the medieval cathedral, and behind it and over it, the concept, dwarfs all that tawdry nonsense.

AC Harper
AC Harper
9 months ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Ah, but which god?

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
9 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The one who lives in Heaven.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
9 months ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

That still doesn’t narrow it down. There must have been hundreds that met that description who have fallen out of vogue or evolved into a different version of course).

Liz Walsh
Liz Walsh
9 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The one which actually exists. Independent of the minds of men.

Andrew D
Andrew D
9 months ago

The author seems to be unaware that Notre Dame (along with all churches in France pre-dating 1905) are state-owned, and the Catholic Church is simply licensed to use them. Whatever the merits (or otherwise) of the proposed changes, I doubt that they emanate from the Archbishop of Paris (who, by the way, has just resigned – apparently he’d been giving his (female) secretary friendly massages)

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
9 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

True although there is a similar (although slightly different) debate in the gothic Cathedral of Burgos in Spain where they are planning in replacing a late 18th century neoclassical door with a hyperealistic modern one with faces, including a face of the sculptor as Jesus. In this case the church does own it.

Last edited 9 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Andrew D
Andrew D
9 months ago

Yes, I’m fully aware that the church is capable of such idiocies – think of the golf putting green in Rochester Cathedral and the helter skelter in Norwich Cathedral

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
9 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

I hope she was beautiful i.e.. worth the trouble. (Probably not !)

Peter Francis
Peter Francis
9 months ago

Here in Scotland, St Mungo’s Cathedral in Glasgow is Crown property and is cared for by Historic Environment Scotland. It is a functioning place of worship and the secular organization have not done too much to ruin the environment for that worship. But I suspect that the commercial pressures on Notre Dame might be different. In fact my wife has already suggested that I should seek employment there, as they will certainly want someone to dress up as Quasimodo.

stephen archer
stephen archer
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter Francis

I don’t know if you were aware but there was a Lego exhibition in the crypt of the Cathedral 3 years ago. It was done fairly tastefully and since the crypt doesn’t have a lot of adornment it didn’t really detract from the environment and definitely not from the main church as a whole. I love visiting churches and try to find some minutes for contemplation if there are not too many obtrusive tourists milling around.

Michael Davis
Michael Davis
9 months ago
Reply to  stephen archer

So you are one of those obtrusive tourists? Or is it just other people

Charles Mimoun
Charles Mimoun
9 months ago

If this church is rebuilt differently, the day of the inauguration will be in my calendar the official day of the West’s end.

Last edited 9 months ago by Charles Mimoun
Alan Osband
Alan Osband
9 months ago

Is the Hadrian killing the architect of the Pantheon story true ? Sounds like a tour guide ‘fact’ ,about as likely as Juicy Smolle’s encounter with the maga men