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Paris: The Paradox of the Pantheon


The history of France, like that of most countries, is littered with contradictions. It has managed to allow itself a pride in both the French Revolution and the 'ancien regime' the Revolution overthrew, and to more or less even-handedly honor Napoleon, dozens of kings and republican ideals.


The Pantheon in Paris, known to us mainly as the place where France honors its most illustrious names, or at least some of them, has a history that mirrors the changing allegiances and values of its nearly 250 years since the National Assembly in 1791 proclaimed the words over the entrance: "A grateful nation honors its great men."


Those were years of turmoil within France and within the Revolution, and two of the first men honored there, Mirabeau and Jean-Paul Marat, were unceremoniously booted within a couple of years. That's when the National Assembly decreed that henceforth, no one would be 'pantheonized' until he had been dead for ten years. That 'he' is literal; Marie Curie, who died in 1934, became the first woman selected for the Pantheon—in 1995.


The Pantheon wasn't built for its purpose; it was meant to be a church holding relics of Ste Genevieve, patron saint of Paris. Louis XV promised in 1744 to build if it he survived his serious illness. The site had been used for Roman temples and Christian churches since the 5th century. Design and construction stretched out to 1790.

P1350521P1350511P1350513P1350515P1350516The revolutionary National Convention and some revolutionary heroes

In 1790, the Marquis de Vilette proposed that it be made a temple devoted to liberty: "Let us install statues of our great men and lay their ashes to rest in its underground recesses."  A year later the Assembly decreed "that this religious church become a temple of the nation, that the tomb of a great man become the altar of liberty." Religious statues and decorations were removed.

P1350569P1350570P1350613Rousseau's relatively elaborate tomb has a humorous touch: the torch of the Enlightenment reaches out from the tomb to shed its light on the world. Nearby, his frequent antagonist, Voltaire.

That lasted all of a few years; in 1801, Napoleon signed a Concordat with the Pope that restored church properties, including the Pantheon, to religious use, although the crypt kept its official role for the 'great men.' The sculpture on the pediment of "the Fatherland crowning the heroic and civic virtues" was replaced with a religious work by David d'Angers, of whom more in a moment.

P1350510P1350544P1350565Monumental paintings range from purely religious to allegorical to a series of history paintings featuring the life of Joan of Arc

The artwork in the interior underwent numbers of changes over the next few years, reflecting changing religious and political tastes; at one point, an artist was commissioned to redo his paintings on the inside of the dome, replacing Napoleon with Louis XVIII as well as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

P1350518P1350618Large monuments honoring Diderot, philosopher and encyclopedist and Rousseau seem more focused on female nudes than on philosophy

During those years, the crypt got no new burials and was closed to the public; it remained so until late in the century. But other shifts took place. In 1830, Louis-Philippe came to power; the 'Citizen King' returned the Pantheon to non-religious use, and David d'Angers (remember him?) was commissioned to remove his sculpture from the pediment and replace it with "The Nation distributing Crowns handed to her by Liberty, to Great Men, Civil and Military While History Inscribes their Names." A true mouthful!

P1350534P1350535A less-known effect of Napoleon III: It was he who approved Leon Foucault's request to hang a pendulum from the dome to demonstrate the rotation of the earth. A replica has been in place in the Pantheon since 1995

The next great shift came when Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was elected President in 1848 and then made himself Emperor Napoleon III in 1851. Aligning himself with the Catholic Church and conservatives, he once again turned the Pantheon into a church; it remained so until 1881, after the Franco-Prussian War and Napoleon's overthrow, when it resumed its civic role.


Over the years, of course, there was also change at the very top. The dome was originally topped with a cross, but a plan was made to replace it with a statue of Fame, but before that happened, the Pantheon was a church again. Between 1830 and 1851, a flag replaced the cross. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte restored the cross when he took power in 1851; its time on the dome was interrupted for a few months during the Paris Commune when a red flag was flown.

P1350604Victor Hugo's funeral procession at the Pantheon, 1885

Despite the immense size and long history, relatively few have been named to the Pantheon, either buried there or honored in their absence. There are at present 81, more than half dating to Napoleon's time. Selections are made by the President of France, and have become more common and more diverse in the years since Victor Hugo, in 1885, became the first to be honored who was not a political or military figure.

P1350568P1350578P1350596In the crypts themselves, long hallways and a directory of the 'residents'

Hugo was the first interment in the Pantheon since 1815, with the sole exception in 1829 of Jacques-Germaine Soufflot, the architect of the building.

P1350599P1350600Room for more: Each of the many rooms off the corridors has spaces for ten tombs on two levels

Others added since then, often decades after their deaths, include scientists such as Marie and Pierre Curie, writers including Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas and Andre Malraux, resistance figures including Jean Moulin, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Josephine Baker (the first woman of color honored) and political figures such as Jean Monnet (credited as the father of European Unity) and Rene Cassin, author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

P1350553P1350541Statues for the unknowns: One is "to the unknown heroes, to the unknown martyrs who died for France" and the other "to the memory of the artists whose names are lost"

There are also, in another paradox, inscriptions honoring some who were, in their day, enemies of France, including one who helped lead the Haitian Revolution, driving France from the island nation and one who fought the reestablishment of slavery in Guadaloupe. Other inscriptions honor 2,600 people honored for saving French Jews during the Nazi era and the memory of those who lost their lives for their ideas in the revolutions of 1830 and 1848.


There are also some who might have been honored but have not been, for a number of reasons. General de Gaulle, in his will, specifically forbade any move to bury him there; the family of the left-wing novelist Albert Camus declined the honor in his behalf because it would have been bestowed by Camus' right-wing nemesis, President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Saved for last: Some of the most interesting artwork in the Pantheon is some of the newest: six vitrines filled with objects and scenes meant to evoke images of the First World War, as reflected in the book Ceux de 14 (Those of 1914) by Maurice Genevoix, a French writer who fought in the war. German artist Anselm Kiefer, a long-time resident of France, was commissioned for the works by President Macron to mark the pantheonization of Genevoix in 2020. They are the first new works installed in the Pantheon since the 1920s.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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