1937, The Notre-Dame stained glass window controversy

Paris. In April 2019, Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral was ravaged by a Dantesque fire. After the national emotion, controversies over the integration of a contemporary architectural gesture in the reconstruction ignite the media scene. If this avenue was quickly abandoned, another debate emerged when the President of the Republic took everyone by surprise by announcing that he wanted to equip the cathedral with contemporary glass roofs. The desire to replace six stained glass windows created on the initiative of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century scandalizes some heritage defenders, including the blog The Art Tribune who launches a petition. This request, which has received 139,696 signatures to date, has not shaken the Head of State, since he has just set up a committee responsible for designating the winning artist. If the petition in itself is not surprising – this type of initiative being extremely banal – the apple of discord is, however, something to amaze historians. Because are our petitioners aware of replaying almost word for word a controversy almost a century old?

Originally, the 1937 International Exhibition

This is in fact not the first time that the stained glass windows of the famous building have hit the headlines. In the 1930s, a similar controversy mobilized artists, the world of heritage and the general public, whose press was furious about it. The affair has taken on such proportions that observers are astounded that Parisians are torn apart on this subject when war is imminent. The equation has not changed: it already involves replacing the glass roofs of Viollet-le-Duc with contemporary bays. On the other hand, this initiative does not arise from politics but from what we today call civil society.

André Rinuy, Saint Louis, Saint Yves, rose of the Creedaround 1937, Paris, DRAC Île-de-France.

© Flavie Serrière Vincent-Petit

Paris, 1935. The future International Exhibition of 1937 is fast approaching and puts the art world in turmoil. A group of twelve glassmakers, including Max Ingrand and Jacques Gruber, prepared immense stained glass windows for the pontifical pavilion. The leader of the group, Louis Barillet, contacted the Historical Monuments with an offer of service. If the administration deems them worthy, he suggests that their stained glass windows be then hung in the high bays of the nave of Notre-Dame. A logical location because the stained glass windows already in place are almost unanimously criticized for their lack of interest, both visual and historical. Made during the restoration of the cathedral, they are made up of ornamental grisailles. They themselves replaced the white glazing installed under Louis XV to bring more light into the building, leading to the removal of medieval stained glass windows.

The proposal of the twelve artists receives a favorable reception from the commission ad hoc ; she encourages him but makes no concrete commitment. The removal of the grisailles indeed raises some reservations within the administration. The vice-president of the commission protests to his supervisory authority, believing that the role of Historical Monuments is not to encourage creation but to preserve what already exists. He fears, moreover, that such an undertaking would create a precedent, and expresses doubts about the lack of unity that this addition could cause. Despite his reluctance, the project took shape and Inspector General Eugène Rattier established the iconographic program with Cardinal Verdier. It is agreed that each artist creates a glass roof made up of two lancets, each representing a saint, all topped with a rose illustrating a verse from the Creed (see ill.).

The test by fire took place at the beginning of 1937 when models and a few complete lancets were installed in situ on a trial basis. A convincing test because the commission only requires a few small modifications to harmonize everything. All of the stained glass windows were then unveiled in the pavilion, a place which was so successful that unlike the other constructions of the International Exhibition, it was preserved and remained open throughout 1938.

Installation of new stained glass windows in the cathedral

The real quarrel erupts when the pavilion closes its doors and the stained glass windows are hung – we think for good – in the cathedral. Two camps clash: supporters of the renewal of sacred art, including Cardinal Verdier who affirms that cathedrals are not museums and should not be made a sanctuary, versus heritage defenders. The press largely expressed itself in favor of the project, but a virulent minority loudly voiced its discontent. In the columns of the magazine The Stones of FranceAchille Carlier denounces for example“abominable variegations”. And calls on the authorities: “So also give the rarest manuscripts as writing notebooks to our schoolchildren while you are at it. » Despite the electric climate, the stained glass windows remain in place and the commission validates the project, subject to slight modifications.

New twist, war is declared. The canopies are dismantled to be protected from combat, which paradoxically will be fatal to them. Louis Barillet's workshop deposited all the stained glass windows and asked his colleagues to come and collect them. But, tired of this umpteenth reversal, most do not comply. After the war, the project was buried and only one artist in the group stood out: Jacques Le Chevalier, who tirelessly continued to make proposals to respond to the undecided recommendations of the commission. In the 1960s, he was finally ordered to produce abstract stained glass windows.

And the stained glass windows from 1937? Those which had not been recovered by their authors became, by transfer, the property of the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs (Drac) of Île-de-France. They remained stored in large crates in the stands of Notre-Dame until the fire. True phoenixes, they experience a second life when they emerge from the flames. These test berries had in fact not been cooked; the Drac therefore decided to carry out this operation to preserve them. Seven of these windows with a thwarted destiny are presented this summer in an exhibition organized at the Cité du stained glass in Troyes: the opportunity for the public to discover the object of the scandal and to form their opinion.

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