An Art Worthy of its Name

by Peter Pennoyer, appearing in Volume 36

The catastrophic fire that damaged Notre-Dame in April was not the first event that afflicted the great cathedral. The building was neglected during the Renaissance, vandalized by the Huguenots, classicized under Louis XIV, and subjected to countless modifications. After the Revolution, the radicals attempted to de-Christianize France, and the wholesale desecration of Notre-Dame followed. 

The heads of the kings of Israel and Judah were lopped off (these were found in 1977 when excavators uncovered them among foundation rubble), and the nave was stripped of statuary and ornaments. The cathedral was then renamed the Temple of Reason, until it was dubbed the Temple of the Supreme Being by Robespierre’s cult. The statue of the Virgin Mary was replaced by the Goddess of Liberty. The cathedral then fell into disrepair, but was spared the fate of such structures as Cluny Abbey, which were pulled down, stone by stone, as a source of building materials for new, non-religious projects.

The day after the fire, President Emmanuel Macron proclaimed that Notre-Dame would be rebuilt and be “even more beautiful than before.” The next day, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced an international competition to design a new spire “suited to the techniques and challenges of our time.” He unleashed a popular exercise freed of the encumbrances of the inherently less colorful approach of replicating what was lost. 

Designers, artists, and architects responded with a range of proposals that make for striking Instagram posts, from Norman Foster’s glass roof and spire to Clément Willemin’s flat-roofed “High Line”-style walking deck. These designers invoke buzzwords like sustainable, humane, inclusive, recycled, biodiverse, and transparent.

Durable Heritage

In 1830, heritage proved more durable than revolutionary fervor. The government sought, in a typically centralized and rigorous manner, to document its great cultural treasures and begin the process of preserving historic monuments. 

A new interest in the Middle Ages took hold, colored by Romantic ideals. Destruction of older buildings was condemned. In 1825, Victor Hugo published a pamphlet called “War on the Demolishers!,” and his 1831 Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) was a huge success. It made the long-neglected cathedral a beloved treasure.

Design for the renovation of a chapel in Notre-Dame by Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus, 1843. Image: Museum of Art

Design for the renovation of a chapel in Notre-Dame by Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus, 1843. Image: Museum of Art


In 1844, Viollet-le-Duc, at age thirty already an accomplished artist, illustrator, and architect, along with his partner Jean-Baptiste Lassus, won the competition to restore Notre-Dame. The drawings and documents they produced to win this commission form a dazzlingly complete and perceptive record of every part of the building—entire elevations drawn to the last stone. The partners’ proposal included some new elements but was generally respectful of the existing fabric. 

The restoration, which lasted until 1864, was a magisterial accomplishment that included the new spire to replace the original that had fallen into disrepair and was removed in 1786. The Viollet-le-Duc spire is the one whose design, though completely documented, is likely to be ignored in the forthcoming rebuilding.

The reason Viollet-le-Duc’s approach to preservation later came to be condemned sheds light on why today’s France may consider his work at Notre-Dame to be expendable. As one of the founding theorists and practitioners of preservation, his philosophy, for which he has been unjustifiably pigeonholed, was as deeply controversial in his time as it is in ours. 

Among his thousands of pages of writing, he recorded a definition in his Dictionary of French Architecture that bedeviled his career: “Restoration: both the word and the thing are modern. To restore a building is not to maintain it, to repair it or redo it; it is to restore it to a complete state that may never have existed at any given moment.”

A narrow reading of his text suggests that he was unconcerned with authenticity. In practice he cared deeply about the many monuments he restored and adapted his approach to each building and even each stone, exercising judgment rather than restricting himself with abstract rules. As he later observed, “absolute principles lead to absurdities.”

Underlying Methods

He only designed missing elements without the benefit of documentary evidence as a last resort. Typically, he preferred to respect existing fabric—even when an element he restored was a non-original intervention in an otherwise consistent building. Bringing each element of a building to its highest form, his burnishing of certain parts inherently obviated the possibility of a simple, linear history. 

In Notre-Dame, he only edited out as necessary, removing the classicizing elements that were introduced under Louis XIV. These barely integrated non sequiturs, such as the white glass in the nave windows, were an ill-conceived concoction of a period that was immune to the spirit of the Gothic.

In executing the restoration, Viollet-le-Duc stepped back from the proposals for more radical changes that had been part of his and Lassus’s successful bid. For example, in his first rendering, the team had proposed spires atop the bell towers on the western façade. He decided against these, saying they “would be remarkable but would not be Notre-Dame de Paris.” But his design for the central spire, though clearly his creation, was supported by its inclusion in the original cathedral structure, as recorded in a painting by Jean-François Garneray.

Where he did design new elements—including the details of his spire—he started with documentary and physical evidence. Where no direct evidence was available, he drew on his deep knowledge and extensive collection of drawings of relevant, contemporary monuments. His exceptional artistic talent allowed him to translate his grasp of precedent into new designs. 

Viollet-le-Duc’s drawings are vivid, alive, and compelling compared to the more formalized ones favored by his contemporaries at the École des Beaux-Arts. Behind his knowledge of precedent was his passion for underlying structures, materials, and methods. For example, before preparing a drawing of a fig leaf for an architectural ornament, he explored the structure of the leaf and noted how its fibers cause it to curve, then considered how the artist can interpret these curves, and lastly studied how the stonemason abstracts these lines and simplifies the textures to make a representation of a leaf that could be read at the scale of a cathedral ornament.

Unnerved Critics

Though Viollet-le-Duc has been accused of creating design fictions, it is more likely that his successful channeling of the spirit and practice of medieval architecture and artisanship unnerved and confused his critics. He resuscitated long-dead designs; once infused with life, they were treated as ghostly visions by his disapproving colleagues.

Perhaps unaware of the nature of Viollet-le-Duc’s practice, Macron now perpetuates this misunderstanding of the architect’s work, effectively dismissing the lost spire as a fictive addition. But Viollet-le-Duc’s spire was a work of transcendent beauty, a soaring burst of Gothic plasticity that combined the organic, fluid structure that he understood so well with appropriate decoration and sculpture, drawing together the creative and spiritual strands of this cathedral. The loss of the spire voids an essential emblem of the Gothic.

While his approach to preservation is now thought to have produced a false sense of historical development, Viollet-le-Duc’s real commitment was to historical truth as much as to memory. His reflections on artistic expression in the thirteenth century reveal an understanding that is essential to his success as a designer, and notably absent today.

Then, he wrote, art was “a type of freedom of the press, an outlet for intellects always ready to react against the abuses of the feudal society.” Its secular sculpture revealed “a pronounced democratic sentiment” and a “loathing of oppression.” 

He explained: “What is most noble, what makes it an art worthy of its name is the liberation of the intellect from the theocratic and feudal swathes. Consider the heads of the figures decorating Notre-Dame’s portals. What do you see? The stamp of intelligence and moral strength in all its forms. . . . Several heads animated with unadulterated faith have illuminated features, but how many others express doubt, ask a question and mediate?”

Valid Embodiment

A restored Notre-Dame with a perfect replica of the spire would be a valid embodiment of history. A newfangled version risks reducing the monument to a secular theme park exhibit. The new design will likely interrupt the mysterious glory of Notre-Dame with elements as glossy as the pyramid at the Louvre. 

Given our relentlessly solipsistic design culture, it is unlikely that an inspired architect will find truth in the Gothic language and abstract its essential transcendent qualities. Without the requisite knowledge and spiritual attachment, a contemporary designer is likely to indulge in the all-too-common brand of illiterate abstraction.

The threat will be greater if new designs touch more of the cathedral. A scheme for the roofscape and spire may spread to new ideas for damaged portions of the nave. A secular France may no longer provide the constituency with the power and confidence to protect Notre-Dame. 


The revolutionary zeal that stripped the cathedral of its statuary and ecclesiastical furnishings and chiseled “To Philosophy” over the portal is not entirely dead. As Patricio del Real, a professor of art and architecture at Harvard, observed: “The building was so full of meaning that the fire seemed an act of liberation.” A design competition for a “more beautiful” Notre-Dame is the sort of “liberation” that conceals the same destructive impulse of the Revolution.