Plans to Install Contemporary Stained-Glass Windows in Notre-Dame Cathedral Spark Backlash

French officials have called on artists to submit designs for six new windows in the structure’s south aisle

Notre-Dame Construction
Paris' Notre-Dame Cathedral under renovation on December 8, 2023 Gao Jing / Xinhua via Getty Images

When a fire raged through Notre-Dame Cathedral in 2019, it didn’t destroy the structure’s stained-glass windows, which were created by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in 1859. Last month, however, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed replacing them with contemporary designs.

Spirited backlash followed, with critics arguing that the change would disrupt the “architectural unity” of the famous landmark. Now, more than 125,000 people have signed a petition against the new windows’ installation.

“What sense does it make to restore the cathedral to its last known historical state (before April 15, 2019), that of Viollet-le-Duc, only to deprive the building of an essential element that Viollet-le-Duc wanted?” the petition reads, per a translation by Artnet’s Jo Lawson-Tancred. “Who gave the head of state a mandate to alter a cathedral that does not belong to him, but to everyone?”

Laurent Ulrich, the archbishop of Paris, first suggested the idea, reports the Guardian’s Kim Willsher. When announcing the plan, Macron invited contemporary French artists to submit designs for six new windows, which would ultimately be installed in the cathedral’s south aisle. The current windows would likely be housed in a new museum dedicated to the cathedral and the restoration process.

The petition, organized by the art magazine La Tribune de l’Art, appeared within days.

Notre-Dame Stained Glass
Scaffolding and stained glass windows inside the nave of Notre-Dame Sarah Meyssonnier / Pool / AFP via Getty Images

Just how faithful the restorations should be to historic designs has been a matter of debate ever since the fire. In the aftermath of the disaster, Macron suggested replacing Notre-Dame’s iconic spire (also designed by Viollet-le-Duc) with a modern version to symbolize the cathedral’s endurance. That idea was swiftly shut down. Workers eventually replaced the spire with a design that was identical to the original.

“Emmanuel Macron wants to put the mark of the 21st century on Notre-Dame. … A little modesty might be best,” reads the petition, per Google Translate. “We will not be cruel enough to remind you that this mark already exists: fire.”

If the French government moves forward with the plan, it won’t be the first time the cathedral’s windows have been updated. Only a small portion of the current glass dates back to the 12th century, while the majority was added much later in the 17th, 19th and 20th centuries, as Olivier Ribadeau Dumas, the rector-archbishop of Notre-Dame, tells the French newspaper La Croix, per El País Sara González.

Didier Rykner, the founder and editor of La Tribune de l’Art, has a suggestion of his own: He thinks that the updated stained-glass windows should be added to Notre-Dame’s north tower, which currently has regular windows rather than stained glass.

Replacing the north tower windows would “enrich the cathedral” and have “magnificent symbolic” value, writes Rykner in the magazine. “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. 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.”

The reconstructed cathedral is scheduled to reopen on December 8, 2024.

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