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Give Us Back Our Lady! by Hélène de Lauzun

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Give Us Back Our Lady!

The interior of the Notre-Dame Cathedral.

Photo: Jorge Láscar, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The fire that destroyed Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral in April 2019 deeply pained people far beyond the Catholic world. All feared we might lose a masterpiece of world heritage to the devouring flames, not to mention a major tourist destination and, of course, a sanctuary that embodied the deep Catholic identity of France.

Since the fire, controversies surrounding the cathedral have been numerous and constant. The real causes of the fire have still not been identified with certainty, and the generosity raised by the prospect of the cathedral’s reconstruction was immediately spoiled by serious doubts and concerns: could we be sure that the medieval building would be reconstructed à l’identique, as the vast majority of visitors and believers wish it to be? Crazy proposals arose, including glass roofs and hanging gardens, sometimes going so far as to consider the desecration of the building so that it would be able to fulfill its touristic mission in a more ‘efficient’ way.

Disturbing rumors have recently broken out in the French and international press on the so-called updating of the cathedral. The official agency of French Historical Monuments has its say, as does the diocese of Paris, which has the use of the place—and here lies one of the most important aspects of the problem. The temptation to make Notre Dame a place for questionable artistic and liturgical experiments is immense. Several such experiments are in competition, most of which would damage both the cathedral’s beauty and its reverence.

The British newspaper The Telegraph, which has had access to some possible plans, is appalled by the possible transformation of the cathedral into a sort of tasteless liturgical theme park—a “politically correct Disneyland.”  For example, the removal of some altars, confessionals, and statues in order to erect sound and light trails all around the church is underway. The diocese of Paris is trying to defend itself against these accusations, but embarrassment prevails, and its ‘clarifications’ only add to the confusion.

Will the reconstruction finish what the fire started? We can reasonably fear this, and France’s beloved and famous cathedral is at risk of getting a face no one will recognize.

Regretfully, we are forced to learn all this through press releases, at a time when ‘transparency’ is supposedly the standard of all kinds of communication (or even a new cardinal virtue). Decisions about these projects are made behind closed doors and are not clearly communicated to the public, or even to the faithful. Whether in Parisian town halls or at the Vatican, we hear people talking about ‘collegiality’ and ‘synodality’ all day long (the mere addition of a trash can on the square in front of the cathedral requires democratic approval), but when it comes to radically remodeling Notre-Dame de Paris, everything is done in secret. The reason is very simple: the designers of these projects have an interest in saying as little as possible so as not to trigger scandals.

In a few words, what is included in the project of the diocese? The use of the walls of the chapels to exhibit contemporary art and murals; the removal of several statues and the scrapping of confessionals; the projection of verses for a sort of interactive ‘catechumenal path;’ the installation of benches with wheels to replace centuries-old chairs (which would be moved to the crypt-turned-storage space by a freight elevator). The most alarming aspect, however, is that the diocese does not try to deny this. When questioned about each new rumor, officials either remain silent or admit the changes by wrapping them in a kind of politically correct gibberish.

All the characteristic beliefs of our time can be found in the broad outlines that guide this restoration. The diocese wants to ensure that the many tourists who will wander through the cathedral will come to know more about Jesus Christ through this experience. This honourable sentiment has to be praised; indeed, the Church must speak to everyone. But the means proposed to achieve this noble goal are questionable. The diocese wants to project multilingual verses of the Bible on the walls of the church. This is an example of the perpetual misunderstanding of the relationship between the universal and the particular. Instead of trusting the universality of beauty, this plan would send the visitor back to his particularism. Why not trust the consistency of Catholic civilization and its history to touch hearts? What is the use of projecting a psalm in Bengali or Slovak? Medieval churches were addressing a predominantly illiterate audience, but their architects knew very well that there were other ways of converting people than writing. 

This obsession with text reveals another problem: the intellectualization of the Catholic faith—poorly understood, and reduced to an avatar of the famous universal ‘religion of the Book.’ The solution to this problem is to realize that Catholicism is, in fact, the faith in the Incarnate Word. Mosques are adorned with verses of their holy book because Muslims believe the Koran to be the eternal word of God, but the Christian tradition prefers the figurative and the representation of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Divine Word. Since early Christianity, the walls and vaults of churches have been adorned with images of Christ in majesty, statues of the Holy Virgin, and paintings representing the great scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints.

“Visitation de la Vierge” (1716), a 431 x 441 cm oil on canvas by Jean Jouvenet (1644-1717).

The terrible incident of the Notre Dame fire should have been the occasion to renovate a church so damaged by the ravages of time, to make it even more beautiful. Instead, the sorcerer’s apprentices in charge of its destiny have preferred to indulge in their dreams of experimentation, as if a centuries-old cathedral were a creative laboratory subsidized by the Ministry of Culture.

Things should have been simple. Reconstruction efforts should allow its venerable history to speak for itself so that the sobriety that has always emanated from the cathedral might have continued to mark the lives of its many visitors. It was necessary to remain silent in the face of the immensity of the inheritance, but our time does not know what it is to be humble in the face of the legacy of the past. We prefer to rewrite the past, pretending to know better than our forefathers. Our age prefers to impose the logic of its ideologies—in defiance of the common sense and simple devotion of the anonymous and the illustrious who have humbly trodden the floor of this majestic nave. It strives to create sense in a kind of ‘psychoanalysis with vaguely artistic intentions,’ whereas silence and stones have already said enough.

When spiritual masterpieces are in peril—whether because of man, war, or natural disasters—what do Italians do? What do Russians do? They take meticulous care to restore damaged historic sites to their original grandeur. After their tragic earthquakes, nobody in Italy would have imagined restoring the Basilicas of Orvieto or Assisi by making the masters of the Renaissance dialogue with some obscure contemporary painter. Or look to the Russians who restored the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg, which had been turned into a warehouse after the Revolution of 1917. They spent 27 years restoring the mosaics and frescoes to their original glory. But when it comes to history and heritage, this humility is sorely lacking in France today, as their ardent defender, the journalist Stéphane Bern, laments.

The ‘restoration’ of Notre Dame is done without humility to the past, communication with the present, or obligation to the future. It is being performed in an awkward silence. The names of those who work on the restoration are unreleased. The information we get on the project feels like leaks from a top secret file. Isn’t that the best proof that those who orchestrate it are somewhat ashamed of what they are doing? Let us pray the most irreversible decisions have not yet been taken.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).

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