Medieval art and design: Notre-Dame resurrects the debate between tradition and modernity

The working group that devised what will be the new interior space of Our Lady He was chosen by the then Archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, and his deputies. They have imagined placing works by urban furniture designers such as those of the renowned Ernest Pignon-Ernest in the cathedral. In the same way, let the classic paintings of the Le Nain Brothers (17th century) coexist in its nave together with works by the contemporary plastic artist Louise Bourgeois. In his vision, Bible verses in various languages ​​would also be projected with lights on the walls.

Through its modernization they intend to attract more spiritual followers to the temple, which received more than 12 million people a year, the vast majority of them tourists.

For this the reformers want to ventilate the interior to facilitate the visit and the liturgy. So the former archbishop of Paris requested that what has been the cathedral be maintained, at the same time a space for prayer and a cultural visit, all in the same space, contrary for example to the Saint Denis basilica, where worship and museum are separated.

“It is not necessary to change everything that adorns the cathedral to attract more tourists”, analyzes Térence de Monredon, French art historian and medievalist, doctor from the University of Geneva. “But the important point here has a lot to do with the Second Vatican Council of 1965, where it was decided that the Catholic Church should get closer to the people.” With this reform, the masses in Latin and the back to the faithful were abandoned. “Changes such as projecting verses of the Bible in other languages ​​go with the idea of ​​speaking with all the people who enter the cathedral and creating a link between the clergyman and the people who visit,” explains De Monredon.

“Cheesy” and “rococo”

In France, religious buildings belong to the State, which categorizes them as heritage monuments, and the church has rights of use, so the last word goes to the heritage commission.

Not all projects were endorsed by experts from national services. The commission issued reservations, for example, on the use of rolling benches with individual lights to light the missals. Also on the idea of ​​placing the statues of the saints in the nave, along the pillars, and not on the respective altars of the 14 chapels that make up Notre-Dame.

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All these details provoked a strong controversy between the supporters of modernity and the more traditional ones. A hundred French personalities signed a rostrum in the newspaper Le Figaro to denounce a project that they described as “cheesy” and “rococo”.

What they basically reproach is that in the changes they use “cultural mediation devices”, that is, elements that accompany and guide visitors as in museums. “For example, tourists who saw classical works of art, many did not understand their meaning because they did not have that Catholic culture, but I am not sure that putting pictures of the XXI century next to them will be better understood”, Terence De Monredon details.

Medieval resistances

The truth is that architectural revolutions have occurred in the history of European cathedrals. This was the case in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostella. In the 11th century, it was decided to replace the Visigothic rite with the Roman rite, with the aim of attracting more pilgrims from Italy or the Pyrenees. That entailed a radical modification of the architecture. “They choose a type of architecture with elements that did not exist in the Hispanic peninsula at the time,” recalls the medievalist. “At that time there was resistance in the population, but more because of the cost of reconstruction, which was levied on taxes. In fact, the bishop of Compostella had to flee from the revolts that this generated ”, recalls the medievalist.

Another debate arose in the 12th century, when the Saint Denis basilica was erected in the north of Paris. This pantheon of kings was born at the same time as the Gothic style in the kingdom of France. The Abbot Suger de Saint-Denis promoted its construction with the idea that the beauty and richness of this temple would allow the faithful to get closer to God, by getting closer to his beauty. “In the midst of all this, a character opposed: the Cistercian abbot Bernardo de Claraval, who considered that austerity and simplicity were the key to getting closer to heaven,” explains De Monredon, noting a long exchange of letters between the two clerics. .

The furniture changed the masses

For centuries, these debates have taken place within the church itself. Today, with Notre-Dame, the laity have interfered. Just as the liturgy has influenced architecture, followers of the tradition know that architecture will also have an impact on the way services are celebrated.

Notre-Dame offers an example of this effect. “Its liturgical choir was a stone enclosure that enclosed the canons in the altar choir. During the mass the faithful could not see what was happening inside. After the 1965 Vatican Council, the front part of this wooden wall was removed and the faithful had direct access to the altar ”, says the historian. “We went from a mass with a mystery to a mass in which the faithful participate with their song,” he concludes.

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