Why the installation of contemporary stained glass windows is debated

Why the installation of contemporary stained glass windows is debated

More than 137,000 signatures: this is what an online petition has collected, titled: “Let us keep the stained glass windows of Viollet-le-Duc at Notre-Dame de Paris”. Launched by Didier Rykner, journalist specializing in the defense of heritage, it opposes the announcement by the President of the Republic, on December 8, to order six figurative glass roofs from contemporary artists, in order to leave “a mark of the 21st century” in the cathedral. Here are four keys to help you get an idea.

1. The ancients versus the moderns?

At first glance, you might think so. However, in the petition, Didier Rykner does not refuse contemporary creation and even suggests that the order from the Head of State be used to equip the north belfry which does not have stained glass windows. He specifies that if “contemporary stained glass windows have their place in ancient architecture when the original ones have disappeared, they are not intended to replace works that already exist.” The heart of the controversy is there: these creations would take place in six of the seven chapels on the south aisle of the nave, in place of the bays created by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Between 1844 and 1864, the famous architect restored the cathedral from top to bottom and designed most of the hundred or so current stained glass windows. Survivors of the fire of April 15, 2019, they have just been cleaned.

2. The Venice Charter

The petition refers to a famous text, the Venice Charter: in 1964, at the International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historical Monuments, meeting in Venice, they established the main rules which have since guided restorers around the world. Thus, its article 11 explains that “the valid contributions of all eras to the construction of a monument must be respected”, since they bear witness to its history. “And in the history of Notre-Dame, the work of Viollet-le-Duc is part of a coherent whole which goes from the stained glass windows to the spire,” adds Jean-Michel Leniaud, a specialist in the architect. Its glass roofs are “grisailles”, that is to say a composition of subtle grays, to illuminate very colorful chapels as much as possible. He was inspired by the experiments of the great color chemist, Michel-Eugène Chevreul.”

3. Have there been any precedents?

A first virulent controversy took place in 1937, when it was decided to replace twelve high bays of the nave with colorful figurative art deco windows signed by different artists. “They represented the modernity of the time,” explains Anne-Claire Garbe, curator at the Cité du stained glass in Troyes. The Second World War having broken out, they remained in their crates… Finally, in 1955, one of these artists, Jacques Le Chevallier, was asked to create a whole series of abstract stained glass windows instead. Anne-Claire Garbe also recalls that stained glass windows in good condition have already been replaced in other historic monuments in the past: “The Abbey of Conques is the most emblematic case. In 1987, the State commissioned the painter Pierre Soulages to renew the stained glass windows… already redone between 1945 and 1952, by the master glassmaker Francis Chigot.”

4. The fate promised to the old stained glass windows

The stained glass windows of Notre-Dame are classified and the National Commission for Heritage and Architecture should be consulted before or after the competition promised by Emmanuel Macron. But his opinion is only advisory… Anticipating objections, the President explained that the 19th century stained glass windows would be exhibited in the Oeuvre Notre-Dame museum, whose creation he announced – greeted by all lovers of the monument. “But they will be out of context,” protests Jean-Michel Leniaud, who fears that only one of the immense glass roofs will be shown, and that the others will lie dormant. The State will also have to justify the expense linked to its contemporary project, while many other cathedrals in France are awaiting support for their work.

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