Arts Arts & Books

Debunking the myth of Newman and Notre-Dame

Roderick O’Donnell explains the controversies of the Gothic Revival

In 1851, John Henry Newman received a packet of architectural drawings for his new Oratorian church in Birmingham. It was never built – today’s Birmingham Oratory was designed after his death – but in moments of distress or reflection Newman took them out and pored over them.

Which architect had he commissioned? Surely AWN Pugin, the most famous Catholic architect of the day? Or perhaps another Catholic, JJ Scoles, architect of the Jesuit Farm Street Church?

For a long time, it was believed that Newman had chosen the French Gothic Revival architect EE Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879), famous for his restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris.

Newman, like his fellow convert Manning, had mixed feelings about the Gothic Revival, associating it with his Anglican days. He was an opponent of Pugin, having clashed with him over the fitting up of rood screens in churches. Scoles’s links with the London Oratory would have been enough to disqualify him.

But were the plans in Newman’s pocket really by Viollet-le-Duc? To understand why that was unlikely, we need to turn to the history of Notre-Dame.

Paris and its churches had suffered dreadfully during the Revolution: the statues on Notre-Dame were beheaded, the spire demolished and then the interior vandalised. Official “de-Christianisation” turned Notre-Dame into a Temple of Reason, with an actress enthroned on the site of the high altar. Although Napoleon gave it back to the Church, its structural deterioration was ignored.

The mob attacked again in 1831, destroying the sacristy and archbishop’s palace; later archbishops lost their lives in the revolutions of 1848 and the Red Commune of 1870-1.

Nevertheless, there was a Catholic cultural fightback and it was thanks to this that Notre-Dame was saved and restored. France enacted legislation to protect historic buildings in 1843, 70 years before Britain did. However, its tone was scientific rather than romantic. One of its officials, the young Viollet-le-Duc, was a Positivist,
an unbeliever and, in French terms, an “archaeologist”, analysing buildings according to architectural and engineering principles. His first great success was in recording and saving the collapsing basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine at Vézelay in Burgundy.

In 1842 Viollet-le-Duc won the limited competition to restore Notre-Dame, and was in exclusive charge from 1857 until the opening in 1864, analysing, repairing and restoring the cathedral, as well as refurnishing it. The sacristy, the altars and the wall paintings were all his design. He made a new Gothic Revival high altar, equipping it with candlesticks, crucifix and tabernacle; these, with his magnificent choir lectern (considered redundant by the liturgical reformers) were not in the church during April’s fire. His precious reliquaries were also safe in the sacristy. Alas much of his fabric was lost, especially his brilliant crossing spire. Constructed of wood – like the cathedral’s now lost medieval roofs – it acted as a stack in the fire, its conflagration piercing the heart of France and the world. Fortunately records of it are such that its recreation is possible.

Pugin, by contrast, was Catholic and Romantic, not statist and scientific. Half-French, he knew Paris well, and followed the restoration of its churches, notably the Sainte-Chapelle, which inspired that of Notre-Dame. As a Catholic, he was excluded from the restoration of medieval cathedrals in Anglican hands, all of it achieved as laissez-faire not governmental work. At the Houses of Parliament, his one work on a state building, he was grievously exploited.

Only at St Giles, Cheadle, where his great patron the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury paid for it, are the standards of the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament achieved. St Giles’s consecration in 1846 was attended by many Europeans, including the liberal French Catholic leader the Comte de Montalembert, and some French architects.

Newman was there too, but he remained unconvinced. So he asked a Paris architect to design his church, and it was not a gothic one. In fact, Newman’s “Monsieur Duc”, was one Louis-Joseph Duc, as this writer established in 1981, burying the myth that it was Viollet-le-Duc.

Despite the official policy of laïcité – a policy much harsher than mere “separation of church and state” – the state owns and maintains all churches in France built before 1905. President Macron pledged dramatically to pay for the restoration of Notre-Dame and achieve it within five years. Less helpful was the French prime minister’s announcement of a competition to rebuild the roof in a 21st-century mode. More than 1,100 architects, archaeologists and academics have written in protest at the headline-grabbing haste. Catholics should add their names to the campaign. Viollet-le-Duc’s philosophy may not have been to Newman’s taste, but it was partly thanks to him that Notre-Dame was preserved as a cathedral and as a shrine.
We should pray that his achievement is preserved.

Dr Roderick O’Donnell is an architectural historian