The PANTHEON, Paris

See Appendix 1 below for details on St Etienne

Once the visitor has finished strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens and admired the Medici Fountain, they should find the gate nearby and it is a simple walk up Rue Soufflot to the large square in front of the Pantheon. This huge building might look like a Church, particularly as it has a cross on top of the dome, but today it is a mausoleum that celebrates/honours the famous and significant citizens of France. For travellers who have toured Rome, both its name and its architecture will remind them of the Pantheon building there, except that structure was built at the start of the second century CE. This ‘temple’ was built between 1758 and 1790 at the behest of King Louis XV. The original architect was Jacques Soufflot who did much of his architectural training in Rome so it is unsurprising to see the Roman Pantheon as an ancestor of this building.

The above architectural drawings are from 1756 when Sofflot’s project was to build a church dedicated to the patron saint of Paris, St Genevieve. Louis XV had fallen sick and had promised that if he recovered from his 1744 illness, he would replace the earlier church and abbey on this site with a much grander building. This link with St Genevieve, a sixth century French saint famous for leading Parisians in the fight against the invading Huns, is important as it shows how significant this site is in the history of Paris. The site of the forum of the Roman Town Lutetia was located here and was also the original burial site of St Genevieve. A Church was built here in 508 by Clovis, King of the Franks where the relics of the saint were kept.

Neither Sufflot or Louis XV when they were planning to build this church dedicated to the city’s Patron Saint would have realised that this was not a good time or place to be building churches. By the time the Church was finished in 1790, the French Revolution was in full swing and the whims and wishes of the old kings of France held little value in the eyes of the new rulers of France. The old Catholic world view was seen as part of the burden that had held the people in their low place for centuries. In 1791, the new church of St Genevieve was transformed into a mausoleum to honour the distinguished citizens of the Nation. The text underneath the pediment at the front of the Pantheon was agreed to at this time; “A grateful nation honours its great men.” One of the first people to be interred in the new mausoleum was the prominent revolutionary figure, the Comte de Mirabeau. His was also the first body to be taken out again when it was discovered he was in fact an ‘Enemy of the Revolution’ after his letters to the last King of France were discovered. His body was replaced by Jean-Paul Marat (a martyr of the revolution prone to promoting the death of his opponents) but of course he was also ditched when it was decided he was also an ‘Enemy of the Revolution’. Being faithful to the current religious or political orthodoxy is always a fickle and precarious business.

During the 19th century, the Pantheon was returned to its original purpose for two periods of time. In 1816-1830 during the Bourbon Restoration it reverted to its original role as a Catholic Church as it also did between 1852-1881. Since 1881 to today, the Pantheon has functioned as a mausoleum and since that time, leading writers and scientists have been interred here, even ‘women’ such as Marie Curie in 1995!

A visit to the Pantheon is an overpowering experience. One aspect of this is that a visitor from any religious background will get the sense that they are in a religious building but with all the usual furniture and traditional symbolism missing. For example, where the sacred altar in the original building (see centre of image above) would have been placed, there stands a different altar with the statue of a woman representing the Republic of France. It was created in 1913 by sculptor Francois-Leon Sicard and is a reference back to the French Revolutionary period. Inscribed on the altar is “La Convention Nationale”, the original gathering of the first revolutionary parliament between 1792 and 1795. On the left-hand side is a group of elected representatives swearing an oath to the Republic, the first such group elected without distinctions of class. On the other side of the ‘altar’ is the heroic military figure leading the people off to war.

The other feature of the Pantheon that might surprise a visitor from a religious background is that the centre of the building underneath the central dome is given over to a huge pendulum that hypnotically swings across the constructed circle continuously. It is a recreation of a famous 1851 scientific experiment by Leon Foucault where his device demonstrated the effect of the earth’s rotation. Although no longer a Church at the time, local Church officials objected to this secular use of the building and Foucault’s pendulum was removed. The original pendulum was returned to the Pantheon for a few years in the 1990s. The presence of the replica pendulum here today illustrates that this gorgeous building has been one of the battlefields of the philosophical conflict between science and religion and it looks like science has won in this case.

There is a lot to see and marvel at when walking around the Pantheon. Due to the building’s movement from religious to secular purposes over the 19th century, as well as the changing views of modern politicians, the sculptures and murals are plentiful, all attempting to make point about what is valuable to the French state and its people.

If there is one feature of the Pantheon I would encourage visitors to inspect, it is the dome that sits above the Pantheon. Domes over temples, churches and other important buildings have fascinated architects for thousands of years. A visit to the Pantheon in Rome shows that it has a hole in the dome and during rainy weather, the visitor might theoretically need an umbrella if they were wearing their best clothes. There is also an oculus in the dome of the Paris Pantheon but little rain filters to the ground floor here due to the design that can be seen in Sufflot’s design drawing above left. It is actually three domes and it is the first dome that has an oculus in the centre. If you look through this aperture, the fresco ‘The Apotheosis of Saint Genevieve’ can be seen painted on the underside of the second dome, completed by Antoine Gros over many years of hard labour (1811-24). The saint who inspired the original church on this site still gets to look down on the busy life of the Pantheon, 1500 years after her death.

APPENDIX 1: St Etienne De Mont

As mentioned in the blog about the Pantheon, this district, the Latin Quarter, is where a Gallic tribe settled down after moving from their marshy site around the Seine  River. It became a significant religious centre for the growing city and well before the Pantheon was built it was the site of a Basilica built by Clovis, the King of ‘France’ at the time (466-511). A monastery was built around this church dedicated to St Genevieve. As the population grew after the thirteenth century, the ecclesiastical authorities decided that a new and bigger church for the district needed to be built, this one dedicated to St Stephen (St Etienne). The church was  slow being built and it continued to rise between 1222 and 1624. It still stands today just around the corner from the Pantheon. It is in this church that the remaining relics of St Genevieve, not destroyed during the French Revolution, are housed. (Note reliquary on left below.) The St Etienne Church didn’t escape significant vandalism during the revolution and it was closed down and became a ‘Temple of Filial Piety’ whatever that was. It was restored to the Church in 1803 and still operates today as the local church. It is a beautiful building inside as the photo to the right below of the pulpit illustrates. If visitors aren’t exhausted by the time they finish inspecting the Pantheon, this is another great site to visit in the district.

MUSEE DE CLUNY

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