Notre-Dame: Musée de l’Œuvre on track, Viollet-le-Duc’s stained glass windows under threat

All the versions of this article: English , français

The President of the French Republic today visited the Notre-Dame construction site, one year to the day before it is due to reopen to the public on 8 December 2024. The framework is almost complete (ill. 1) and the structure of the spire is now 96 metres high (ill. 2), finally restoring the monument’s silhouette.
Emmanuel Macron made three announcements following this visit. Two are excellent, it has to be said. The third is unacceptable, and we’ll come back to it.

1. Work to rebuild the roof structure underway on 29 November 2023.
Photo: Didier Rykner
See the image in its page
2. The Notre-Dame skyline being restored (as at 29 November 2023)
Photo: Didier Rykner
See the image in its page

The first, then, concerns the absurd renewed controversy over lead, launched by the former deputy mayor of Paris with responsibility for health, Anne Souyris, newly elected to the Senate (which says a lot about the declining standards of French politicians). We refer you to the entire chapter on lead in our book on Notre-Dame [1], and would simply point out that while lead is indeed a metal to be handled with care, its return to the roof of the cathedral, installed by professionals accustomed to working with this material, obviously poses no risk to the public, especially as there are plans to treat rainwater run-off that might contain traces of it. The President therefore confirmed the choice made at the start of the project, especially as the work carried out in the roofing workshop is already well advanced, and installation will begin shortly.

3. The Courtyard of the Hôtel-Dieu
Photo: Didier Rykner
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The second decision was eagerly awaited, but its outcome was still uncertain a few days ago. It concerns the creation of the Musée de l’Œuvre and its installation in the Hôtel-Dieu (ill. 3). We refer you to the excellent recent article in L’Express by Agnès Laurent, who recalls all the misgivings that this project has aroused, and still does, with Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris (APHP) as its main opponent, whose heritage is admittedly the least of its concerns, and museums even more so. It should be remembered that the APHP Museum has been in storage for years, the mansion that housed it having been sold, and that after promising to relocate it to the Hôtel-Dieu (already), the Assistance Publique did not keep its word.

The Head of State’s public announcement of the creation of this Musée de l’Œuvre is therefore fundamental, even if all the obstacles have not yet been removed. It seems that a truly great museum will be created, but it will still have to have the space needed to display all the works, some of which are very large, such as the Mays still in storage in certain museums (notably the Louvre and Arras) or the carpet from the cathedral choir. We don’t want a museum on the cheap, but one that is similar to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence. It should also be accessible from the forecourt.
One point was not addressed by the president, and that concerns the continuation of the excavations at the transept crossing and in the choir, which absolutely must be carried out to find the rood screen sculptures that are still buried there and which will form an essential part of this museum (see our article).

4. Alfred Gérente (1821-1868)
Under the direction of Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1869)
Stained glass window from the Saint-Eloi chapel, 1865
(first chapel of the right aisle)
Threatened with being removed and replaced by a contemporary stained glass window
Photo: Janericloebe (Public domain)
See the image in its page

The third decision, on the other hand, is totally unacceptable. While the Ministry of Culture had already examined the possibility of replacing the Viollet-le-Duc stained glass windows in the nave chapels with contemporary works and had officially abandoned the idea (see the news item of 24/11/20), Emmanuel Macron has just decided, all on his own, without respecting any of the normal decision-making procedures, to implement this project in six out of seven chapels in the south aisle.
He is thus responding to a request from Mgr Ulrich, the archbishop of Paris, in the knowledge that the clergy have been dreaming of such a move for a long time, at least since 2010. However, as revealed by Libération journalist Bernadette Sauvaget, on a BFMTV set we took part in this morning, it was the President of the Republic himself who asked the prelate to write him a letter asking him to install these contemporary stained glass windows. We were able to confirm this information from another source, who told us that he had forwarded the request via the Établissement Public de Reconstruction de Notre-Dame.

One of the reasons given by Emmanuel Macron is to "mark the 21st century". But the 21st century has already left its mark on Notre-Dame through fire, and perhaps that is enough. He said that in July "this proposal was presented in principle to the relevant commissions", adding that he "subscribed fully", implying that these "commissions" had thus given their approval. This is an enormous lie told by the President of the Republic. At no time did the relevant commission, i.e. the Commission nationale du patrimoine et de l’architecture, which met in July to decide on the cathedral’s furnishings (see article), discuss this issue, which had been decided in favour of preserving Viollet-le-Duc’s stained glass windows by the then Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot. Mgr Ulrich merely alluded to this in his introductory speech at the start of the commission.

These stained glass windows in grisaille, although very simple and purely decorative (ill. 4), are part of a programme drawn up by Viollet-le-Duc in response to precise objectives, which also correspond to a detailed historical study carried out by the architect. By installing figurative stained glass windows in the upper choir, "legendary" windows in the ambulatory, apostles, prophets, evangelists, the kings of Judah and angels in the transepts, and grisaille windows in the nave, Viollet-le-Duc explained that "this layout conforms, as far as can be judged from the laconism of the texts, to what existed before the destruction of the stained glass windows in 1758. With this programme and the trials, it will be easy, or at least possible, to arrive at a complete and harmonious whole, especially if the work is allocated to each artist according to their talent".

To wish to remove these historic stained glass windows, which are protected as historic monuments, and replace them with contemporary figurative windows would therefore constitute a profound alteration of Viollet-le-Duc’s work, in a part that was never affected by the fire. This is not restoration, but deliberate vandalism, and it is doubtful that it will be accepted by the countless donors to the national fundraising campaign for Notre-Dame. These stained glass windows, the removal of which would damage the light balance and the integrity of the cathedral’s historic state, must be preserved, especially as they have already been cleaned and consolidated during the restoration of these chapels.
As for their installation in the Musée de l’Œuvre, as announced by the President of the Republic, it is profoundly grotesque: deliberately sober, they are only of interest in situ in the place for which they were created. Their display in the museum would also take up a lot of unnecessary space, at the expense of other works.

It is quite incredible that the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris, which should be taking place in a climate of harmony and national unity, should once again be disrupted by decisions such as these, which will reignite controversy that could well be dispensed with, overshadowing the very satisfactory progress being made on this project.

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