The umpteenth controversy over Notre Dame’s restoration: Six 19th century stained glass windows

A petition with over 120,000 signatures seeks to defeat a plan to replace the original panes saved from the fire with modern alternatives

Reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral
French President Emmanuel Macron (right) views the reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral, with the controversial stained glass windows in the background; December 8, 2023.SARAH MEYSSONNIER (AFP)
Sara González

A hint of modernity or not? A petition with over 120,000 signatures has sparked controversy regarding the reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral. Closed since the devastating fire in April 2019, the renovation of the Gothic church is nearing completion and is set to reopen on December 8, 2024. However, President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement to replace six stained glass windows saved from the fire with more modern ones has raised public concerns that they would destroy the “architectural integrity” of the Parisian monument.

The petition, launched on December 10 by art historian and journalist Didier Rykner, pertains to stained glass windows designed by French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who was responsible for restoring the cathedral in the mid-19th century. These windows are located in the southern end of the nave and were unaffected by the fire that destroyed the spire and part of the roof. “Viollet-le-Duc designed these stained glass windows to maintain the cathedral’s Gothic origins as a cohesive whole,” said Rykner, founder of La Tribune de l’Art magazine.

During his recent visit on December 8, Macron announced the creation of a museum near the cathedral that will focus on its history and art collection. He also announced plans to hold a public competition for a contemporary artist to design new stained glass windows that will add a “touch of the 21st century,” an idea backed by the French Roman Catholic Church. In a letter to Macron, Archbishop Laurent Ulrich asked the government to commission “six stained glass windows for the south-side chapels of the nave.”

But Macron seems to be bearing the brunt of all the criticism. “Who gave the head of state permission to change a cathedral that doesn’t belong to him, but to everyone?” asked the petition signatories, who are increasing in number every day. There have been previous controversies surrounding renovation of the cathedral, which used to attract over 12 million visitors annually before its closure. The reconstruction of the iconic 93-meter spire (also designed by Viollet-le-Duc) pitted people who wanted to preserve the original design against others who favored innovation. The spire was eventually rebuilt exactly the same as the original.

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc's stained glass windows in Notre Dame Cathedral; 2009.
Eugène Viollet-le-Duc's stained glass windows in Notre Dame Cathedral; 2009.Alamy Stock Photo

In May 2023, a project by the Paris City Council to add greenery around the cathedral caused friction and even some political repercussions. There is an ongoing controversy surrounding the lead spire sheathing, as the use of this toxic metal raised concerns among Parisians living near the cathedral. On November 30, politicians, NGOs and neighborhood organizations demonstrated in front of the cathedral to urge consideration of all ecological and public health risks. The fire in 2019 released approximately 400 tons of toxic lead fumes into the atmosphere. However, officials assure that the lead sheathing located 130 feet (40 meters) above the ground does not pose any threat to the public’s safety.

The current controversy revolves around the stained glass windows with geometric motifs created by Viollet-le-Duc. Rykner wrote an article arguing that replacing them is akin to “vandalism.” A respected commentator on French architectural heritage, Rykner stressed that he’s not opposed to incorporating modern designs in historic structures, but doesn’t see any valid reasons for replacing the existing stained glass windows in this case. He said the windows “are an integral part of the architect’s work and survived the fire.” Replacing them “would distort the harmony of light” inside the cathedral.

French journalist Didier Rykner initiated a petition to prevent the replacement of six stained glass windows in Notre Dame Cathedral; December 27, 2023.
French journalist Didier Rykner initiated a petition to prevent the replacement of six stained glass windows in Notre Dame Cathedral; December 27, 2023.CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON (EFE)

Rykner proposes placing the new windows in the north wing, the area most affected by the fire. Meanwhile, proponents of the modern stained glass windows say the old ones could be showcased in the new museum near the cathedral. Critics argue that Viollet-le-Duc’s windows are valuable only if they stay in the cathedral. Once the petition gathers 150,000 signatures, it will be presented to the president. According to La Croix newspaper, Olivier Ribadeau Dumas, the rector-archbishop of Notre-Dame, stated that the cathedral boasts nearly 27,000 square feet (2,500 square meters) of stained glass. Approximately 8% of this glass was installed in the 12th century, while the remaining was added in the 17th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

Private donors have contributed a staggering €848 million ($929 million) to finance the cathedral’s reconstruction, which also sparked an uproar over the tax exemptions granted by France’s national heritage law. The latest controversy begs the question: is there anything that can be done at Notre Dame that won’t provoke someone’s ire?

Reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris; December 27, 2023.
Reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris; December 27, 2023.CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON (EFE)

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