(This was a long overdue post that I must have written long back in 2017 when I travelled to Paris. I am way behind in my writings and hence, I am editing some of my drafts…)
The Pantheon, often called the Temple of the Nation, is the resting place of the great minds of France, as they are consecrated, or “pantheonized” here. Many famous icons of the French history and culture lie in this beautiful crypt, decorated by the commemorative sculptures and paintings that echo their achievements.
Originally, the Pantheon was built as a church dedicated to St. Genevieve (patron saint of Paris in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions), but it was later converted into a secular mausoleum of the great minds of France, modelled loosely after the Pantheon in Rome. The Latin Quarter, where the Pantheon sits, is known for its student life, lively atmosphere and bistros. It is also home to many higher education establishments. How apt that the Temple of Great Minds is placed amidst the bustling knowledge centre!
The pediment of the Pantheon reads as follows: Aux grands hommes, la patrie reconnaissante (“To the great men, the grateful homeland”). To the left are figures of distinguished scientists, philosophers, and statesmen, including Rousseau, Voltaire, Lafayette and Bichat. To the right is Napoleon Bonaparte, along with soldiers from each military service and students in uniform from the Ecole Polytechnique. Great people of France, considered to be National Heroes, are buried in this Pantheon, as a tribute to them by the whole nation.
The architecture seen in the above image is modelled after a Greek temple, featuring Corinthian columns and sculpted bas-reliefs. The two reliefs over the main doors seen in the image above, were commissioned during the Revolution. They represent the two main purposes of the building: “Public Education” (left) and “Patriotic Devotion” (right). This beautifully shows how the left and right political ideologies come together for the upliftment and development of a great nation.
The Pantheon’s major work of sculpture stands in back where the altar used to be. It’s called La Convention Nationale and is the creation of Francois-Léon Sicard. It features soldiers on the right of Marianne, the symbol of France, and members of the National Convention on the left. It was this National Convention who ordered the executions of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette in 1793. To understand why the monarchy came under severe criticism and revolts by the Parisians, you need to just read the history of the Palace of Versailles. Both Louis and Marie Antoinette were frivolous when it came to hoarding riches, leading towards much of public resentment. Hence, the National Convention was the first French government organized as a republic, abandoning the monarchy altogether.
Once you enter the Pantheon, you will arrive at the central dome where you will find something interesting. In 1851, physicist Leon Foucault had demonstrated the rotation of the earth by constructing a 67-metre (220 ft) Foucault pendulum beneath the central dome.
By the mid-1800s, many people did believe that the Earth rotated after finally accepting that the Earth rotates around the Sun. But it was still hard to prove this in a clear and easy way, and that is where Leon Foucault comes in. The Foucault’s pendulum keeps oscillating (because the ceiling of the Pantheon is rotating along with the Earth) and at the same time turning its swing positions clockwise as it oscillates.
As you walk past the central dome, you get a beautiful panoramic view of the Pantheon, with many paintings. In 1816, Louis XVIII of France restored the entire Pantheon to the Catholic Church. Then in 1822, Francois Gerard was commissioned to decorate the pendentives of the dome with new works representing Justice, Death, the Nation and Fame. After every revolutions following that, the Pantheon kept changing forms from a Church to a Mausoleum. Finally in 1881, a decree was passed to transform the Church of Saint Genevieve (i.e. the Pantheon) into a mausoleum again.
Many national heroes, statesmen and stateswomen from France have been interred in the crypts below the Pantheon. Nobel laureates physicists and chemists Marie Curie and Pierre Curie are worth mentioning here, along with many other notables of French philosophers, scientists and great thinkers. In 2007, President Jacques Chirac unveiled a plaque in the Pantheon to more than 2,600 people recognised as Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel for saving the lives of Jews who would otherwise have been deported to concentration camps. The tribute in the Pantheon underlines the fact that around three-quarters of the country’s Jewish population survived the war, often thanks to ordinary people who provided help at the risk of their own life.