The minimalist and modern style of the new liturgical furnishings aims for a ‘noble simplicity,’ but has drawn criticism from art experts and Catholic observers.
The Archdiocese of Paris has unveiled plans for the new interior of Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, which was heavily damaged by fire in 2019.
While the cathedral is set to reopen Dec. 8, 2024, as initially announced, the Archbishop of Paris, Laurent Ulrich, has revealed the names of the two candidates chosen to create the new liturgical furnishings — including the altar, tabernacle, cathedra, ambo and baptistery, as well as the chairs for the faithful.
This decision, made public on June 23, followed two consultation phases launched last October and January, at the end of which five artists’ projects (out of 69 submissions) were selected by the archdiocese’s artistic committee.
The Archbishop of Paris had called on candidates to strive for “noble simplicity” in their artistic expression, asking that “the works presented be respectful of the place, its history, its strong symbolism constituted by the mission it has fulfilled over the centuries” — but also, that they respect “the spirit of the Catholic liturgy, according to the meanings and norms established following the Second Vatican Council.”
Sculptor and designer Guillaume Bardet, already known for his installation on the theme of the Last Supper at the Dominican convent of Sainte-Marie-de-La-Tourette (designed by modernist architect Le Corbusier) in 2017, was commissioned to create the five main elements of the liturgical furnishings, which will be made of dark bronze.
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Search for Coherence
This choice of material contrasts with the rest of the monument, all stone and stained glass, but for Archbishop Ulrich, the chosen project is part of a “coherent” whole, where the pieces “fit well together,” as he wrote in his introduction to the presentation press release. Indeed, the prelate was keen to create a unified whole, as the liturgical pieces destroyed or damaged in the fire of 2019 were designed by different artists in different styles.
The archdiocese has also indicated that one of the highlights of the new project is the decision to place the baptistery at the entrance to the cathedral, near the portal of the Last Judgement, to “open the door to the mystery of Christ.” The main altar, with its flared, curved geometric shape, will be placed at the crossroads of the nave and transepts “like a stone taken from the earth for sacrifice, preparing itself as a fraternal table for the Lord’s Supper.”
The design of the chairs for the faithful, 1,500 in all, was entrusted to Ionna Vautrin. Made from solid oak, with an openwork backrest, they were designed to hook together.
The artist Sylvain Dubuisson, who will create the new reliquary housing the Crown of Thorns, had already been chosen by the archbishop without a prior call for tenders. The large size of the reliquary is motivated by the desire to make it more visible and allow the faithful to place their hands on it, as specified by the cathedral’s rector, Monsignor Olivier Ribadeau Dumas.
The total cost of the new facilities, financed by the Fondation Notre-Dame, has been estimated at 6 million euros.
Too Much Abstraction?
These plans replace a first project leaked to the press in 2021, which was eventually abandoned in the face of controversy over its very contemporary styling.
However, the new version has yet to win the unanimous approval of experts and faithful Catholics. While some of the press see it as a rather audacious and unifying project, Catholic commentators have often voiced disparaging criticism of the style of the new furnishings, seeing it either as “a 70s Ikea design, unworthy of the cathedral’s builders,” a reference to the “Adams Family,” or the “embodiment of the decadence of the Church of France.”
In an opinion piece published in the weekly Famille chrétienne, art historian Pierre Téqui expressed his dismay at the “omnipresence of abstraction” in the works of today’s Church, which “never ceases to raise questions among Catholics, who are taught the Incarnation.”
“By always relegating the artistic dimension to the background, we sink into functionalism. Is the Church afraid of artists?” he wondered.
The project models are still awaiting final approval from the French National Commission for Architecture and Heritage, which is expected to issue its verdict July 13.