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Critics fear the beloved cathedral could lose its sense of sacred, take-on attributes of a Disney theme park.

There has been a dispute over how Notre Dame Cathedral will be rebuilt. This controversy started right before the late 2019 Notre Dame de Paris fire cooled down when French President Emmanuel Macron proposed an ambitious deadline.

The leaked report made the controversy spark even hotter as plans for the renovation of the beloved cathedral have hinted that the sacred space might end up looking more like a Disney theme park.

“Paris’ fire-damaged Notre-Dame cathedral risks resembling a ‘politically correct Disneyland’ under controversial plans for its renovation seen by the Daily Telegraph,” that British newspaper said November 26. “Critics have warned that the world-famous cathedral will be turned into an “experimental showroom” under plans to change the inside of the medieval building dramatically.”

Henry Samuel and Tim Stanley, writing in the Telegraph, said this:

Under the proposed changes, confessional boxes, altars, and classical sculptures will be replaced with modern art murals and new sound and light effects to create “emotional spaces.”

There will be themed chapels on a “discovery trail,” emphasizing Africa and Asia, while quotes from the Bible will be projected onto chapel walls in various languages, including Mandarin.

The final chapel on the trail will have a strong environmental emphasis.

However, Fr. Gilles Drouin, who is in charge of the project to rework the interior, told French news agency AFP that the design is not as radical as it’s been made out to be.

He listed several enhancements, including substituting the traditional straw chairs with more comfortable benches equipped with small lamps, softer illumination at head-level instead of light cast down from the high ceiling, and the ability to enter from the main doors rather than side doors.

The objective of the renovation

The objective of the renovation, Fr. Drouin said, is to preserve Notre Dame as a religious place that can better welcome and inform the public “who are not always from a Christian culture,” explained AFP. “Chinese visitors may not necessarily understand the Nativity,” said the priest.

The lesson from the cathedral’s existing chapel dedicated to 19th-century Chinese martyr Saint-Paul Tchen is that visitors from that country will stop and light candles because there are banners in Mandarin, he added.

Side chapels, which were in a “terrible state” even before the fire, will be entirely renovated with a focus on artworks including “portraits from the 16th and 18th century that will be in dialogue with modern art objects.”

He said this would include a “cycle of tapestries” without giving details.

“The cathedral has always been open to art from the contemporary period, right up to the large golden cross by sculptor Marc Couturier installed by Cardinal Lustiger in 1994,” he said.

But Maurice Culot, a prize-winning Paris-based architect, urbanist, theorist, and critic who has seen the plans, told the Telegraph, “It’s as if Disney were entering Notre-Dame. … What they are proposing to do to Notre-Dame would never be done to Westminster Abbey or Saint Peter’s in Rome. It’s a kind of theme park and very childish and trivial given the grandeur of the place.”

Author Rod Dreher added at his blog after he saw the plans set to be unveiled on December 9: “Down comes all the medieval stuff, including stained glass, and up goes modern abstract art.”

In a sidebar to the Telegraph article, Stanley wrote, “The basic idea is that the tourists who come to Notre Dame have no idea what Catholics believe, so here’s a chance to teach them.”

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Raphael Benedict

Raphael Benedict

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