What is the Panthéon in Paris?
Panthéon is a neoclassical 18th-century monument built to replace the Church of St-Geneviève, which houses some of France’s most famous philosophers, scientists and politicians.
Feet hovered and drumsticks rose in anticipation; together, as the drums sounded and leather soles slapped the stone, the procession marched onwards through Paris’s Luxembourg quarter. Célestin Guittard, a member of the lower middle-class, commemorated in his diary this mass gathering on 20th November 1793: canons led the way, drummers behind them; girls dressed in white, women in sashes; a host of citizens marched arm in arm. In a square at the procession’s end, lifted above the expectant heads and defiantly glowing, was a wooden carving of Saint Peter.
As the first Pope, Peter was flanked by the painted image of the Papal Tiara, but also by the heraldic shield of the king’s brother: the monarchy and the Catholic church, inextricably linked. The mesmerised multitude then watched on as the paint was peeled back: flames licked the golden emblem and Peter crumbled to ash on the pyre. In their place not Christ nor the Cross, but the Goddess of Liberty herself. Carried in a chair by eight men, she was set down on a stage to look out over the red freedom caps and tricolore sashes in which the spectators had clad themselves. The warmup acts over, the procession continued towards a church, hollowed out and redecorated with a coarse theatrical set. Where once an altar had stood, a philosophe stood and pronounced: ‘there [is] now no religion and no God... everything [is] the work of nature’.
Only three years earlier, in 1790, the Church of St-Geneviève had been completed. The French Revolution had begun, and the wish of Louis XV seemed imperilled. Lying ill in 1744, the grandfather of the king deposed by the Revolution vowed that if he recovered, he would replace the dilapidated abbey, dedicated to the patron saint of Paris, that stood on this site. Folk history tells that when the city was threatened by the Huns in the 5th century, a valiant Christian woman called Geneviève saved the city through her bravery and prayers. An abbey was built where she was buried, atop the 60-metre-high hill on the Left Bank of the Seine where the old Roman town of Lutetia was situated.
The reconstruction began in 1755, carried out by Jacques-Germain Soufflot, a neoclassical architect. Taking inspiration from the Pantheon in Rome, Soufflot’s building flaunts a columned portico and a towering dome. But it was, of course, meant to be a church and so took the form of a square (or Greek) cross; 110 metres long and 82 metres wide. In 1791, the National Assembly voted to turn the new building into a temple of liberty, a mausoleum to the great men of the revolution, a Pantheon for the new French Republic. 42 windows were walled up, transforming the Corinthian colonnade into a dark and cold funereal space. The pediment was inscribed ‘A grateful nation honours its great men’ and re-carved (though the present version, depicting the personification of France, standing between Liberty and History dispensing laurels to great men, was fashioned by David d’Angers in the 1830s).
A variety of celebrated figures from post-Revolution France have been buried, transferred, or given commentative plaques in the Panthéon, from the philosopher Voltaire in 1791 to Maurice Genevoix in 2020. Over half gained entry during Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule. As you wander around this vast space, you’ll find monuments to the philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot. While in the crypt lie an array of famous figures: the writers Victor Hugo and Émile Zola; the political leaders Léon Gambetta and Toussaint Louverture; and the Nobel Prize winners Jean Perrin and Marie and Pierre Curie. When her remains were transferred here in 1995, Marie Curie became the first woman so honoured for her accomplishments. A temple to France’s heroes, the Pantheón is also testament to the nation’s philosophy, politics, and tumultuous past.
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