Whether you approach the Pantheon or just have a glimpse of it from the Seine River, its immense proportions and style radiate monumentality and indicate greater significance. Being used as a place of worship since its founding in the beginning of the 6th century as a basilica, the Pantheon started to take on its present form and purpose from the 18th century on. During the French Revolution (1789 – 1799) the temple was used as a burial place for distinguished people. During Napoleon Bonaparte’s time, it became a place of worship again, only to become a secular commemorating site for good in 1885.
The grand style of the Pantheon
The Pantheon’s features are purely neoclassical, with Corinthian columns supporting the pediment and an oval cupola outside (frustratingly hidden by renovation works when I visited) and arched vaults inside. The pediment’s composition depicts the Fatherland, flanked by History (on the left) and Liberty (on the right). Accompanying figures represent French culture and military authorities, and a seated Voltaire and Rousseau are among them. The inscription beneath the pediment means “To great people, thankful fatherland”.
An elegant interior with its works of art highlights decisive historical occurrences combined with mythological events, which forged present-day France this way or another. The edifice features a Greek cross plan.
Besides its striking architecture, you can examine some extraordinary works of art, paintings, and sculptures in the Pantheon that introduce visitors to the turbulent history of this great nation. The eternal resting place of some significant personalities can be found in the Pantheon’s crypt. The full price is approximately 9 EUR (10 USD), but holders of the Parisian Museum Pass and other similar city cards have free entrance.
A story of France as we know it
To fully appreciate the Pantheon’s symbolism, you should be familiarized with certain fateful episodes of French history. Since studying such an extensive area probably wouldn’t be convenient at this point, a short outline follows.
As you enter the edifice from the colonnaded porch, a glance to your left reveals a depiction of a beheaded body reaching for its head. This is infact St. Denis, the 3rd century Bishop of Paris, who was beheaded by the Romans around 250 AD. However, St. Denis did not collapse, rather, the body picked up its head and carried it to the exact location where the Basilica of Saint Denis stands. Today, Saint Denis is the patron saint of France.
Just around the corner, another key figure of early French history is introduced. Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, is considered a thaumaturge of quite another sort.
The introductory painting represents a relentless march of Attila, the Whip of God, and his Huns toward Paris in the 5th century. Subsequent depictions illustrate the Parisians who were at the brink of mass evacuation (the second painting), but were halted by fervent preaching of a young woman (the third). The outcome of a large-scale prayer led by the future saint redirected the enemy toward Orleans, whereby unstoppable Huns were defeated by the combined forces of the Visigoths and Romans. The last illustration shows us the blessings that Genevieve received from the Bishop.
Saint Genevieve is credited for various miracles, both during her lifetime and post-mortem. Further illustrations depict miraculous healings and warding off the flood, attributed to the saint’s relics, as well as bringing necessary supplies to besieged Paris during her lifetime.
Bonus knowledge: In fact, a healing is what birthed the Pantheon in the first place. Being very ill, King Louis XV prayed to Saint Genevieve’s relics and thanks to a successful recovery, commissioned the Pantheon as a token of gratitude, devoting it in her name.
Clovis I, Charlemagne, Saint Louis and Joan of Arc
Clovis I was the first Christian king of the Franks. Following the downfall of the Western Roman Empire (476 AD), he managed to unite the Frankish tribes and establish the Merovingian dynasty.
The related composition illustrates the background story and the baptism of Clovis I. In the Battle of Tolbiac (496) the Franks were about to be heavily overwhelmed by the Alemannic tribes. The central painting in the triptych illustrates Clovis’s plea for a divine intervention, pledging to convert to Christianity in return. The depiction on the left illustrates an army of angels crushing the Alamans, while in the painting on the right, the Franks watch in disbelief. The final illustration depicts the act of baptism.
Bonus knowledge: Clovis I was a commissioner of the basilica that preceded the Pantheon on this location.
Charles the Great or Charlemagne was the greatest Carolingian ruler (the dynasty that succeeded the Merovingians). During his reign, Christianity was established as the main religion in the empire that encompassed large parts of western and central Europe, and foundations of the economy and education systems that evolved into modern ones were set. The pinnacle of Charlemagne’s reign can be considered his ascension to the throne of the newly founded Holy Roman Empire, in 800 AD, and the crowning ceremony in Rome is elaborated in detail in the related composition in the Pantheon (in the photo).
Louis IX or Saint Louis is the only canonized French monarch (he ruled from 1226 to 1270), who reduced the corruption and stabilized the stumbling French economy. He also led various reforms in the French Kingdom, which made him one of the most beloved French rulers among the Franks.
The introductory painting illustrates bringing supposed relics of Christ’s passion to Paris by Louis IX, purchased from the impoverished Byzantine king. Following the occasion, Paris was considered the second Jerusalem. Subsequent illustrations bring us into the king’s role of a successful statesman and reformer. While in the first painting, Louis IX shares justice at the court and the second depicts a prelude to establishing the Sorbonne University. The last painting depicts the king’s captivity in Palestine, after the disastrous outcome of the 7th crusade.
Decisive moments of Joan of Arc’s life, one of the world’s greatest heroines in history, are also displayed in the Pantheon.
During the opening decades of the 15th century, the French Kingdom suffered defeats on each front from the English Kingdom during the Hundred Years’ War (1337 – 1452). The introductory painting depicts a moment of a divine revelation, requesting the 16-year old girl, who was completely ignorant of military strategy, to take the command of the demoralized French army.
The second depiction takes us to Orleans in 1429, where the Frenchmen, led by Joan, shattered the English siege. In the meantime, Joan of Arc managed to find and persuade Dauphin Charles VII to appoint her as supreme commander.
The 3rd painting places the Maid of Orleans and Charles VII in the Reims Cathedral (the traditional crowning place of French kings), where the former dauphin was crowned the king. Being initially deeply behind enemy lines, a string of victories was needed to reach Reims.
The final illustration takes place moments before Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake. Being left without necessary reinforcements that were never sent by the new king (the outcome of an intrigue), Joan and her company were besieged in Compiegne by the Burgundians, the English ally. The Burgundians had her captured and sold to the Englishmen, who accused her of the witchcraft and she was burnt at the stake in 1431.
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So much for the paintings, let’s take a look at some sculptures
The sculptural composition in the photo is related to the National Convention of the French Revolution (1789 – 1799), established in 1792. Abolition of the monarchy and leadership over revolutionary France were the Convention’s major accomplishment and role. Marianne, a personification of liberty and virtue and the symbol of France, is accompanied by the dignitaries to the left and military units to the right. The painting in the background illustrates Marianne, holding the laurel wreath, leading the Frenchmen toward victory over outer and inner adversaries.
Once the French monarchy was officially overthrown in 1792, European monarchies recognized the threat imposed by the newly-arisen order whose main principles were “liberte, egalite, fraternite” (liberty, equality, brotherhood). In the following years, the revolution had to deal not only with the counterrevolutionaries (royalists), but also with foreign troops.
In the second photo in this article, you can see the sculptural composition with the “Valmy — 1792” inscription. It was a clash between the French and the Prussians, which brought the first victory for the unproven Convention and revolutionary France, the one that had much larger psychological than strategic impact.
The dramatic Le Vengeur composition places us in 1794, when a large-scale famine threatened the besieged and isolated France. Le Vengeur was a battleship following the convoy sent to French colonies in North America to bring provisions. Attacked by mighty English naval force on its return trip, the convoy lost a significant number of its warships, but ultimately managed to reach France.
Le Vengeur legend states that, although sinking due to a heavy damage, the ship supported the fire against the English battleships. Once that only the prow remained above the water line, the remaining crew gathered there and cried in defiance — Long live the nation, long live the republic — which became the famous French battle cry.
Additional sculptures in the Pantheon honor French intellectuals, statesmen, orators and military leaders. Allegorical figures of philosophy, art and other related areas are displayed, too.
Don’t forget to take the stairway to the crypt
… which takes you to final resting places of people who are important not only to France, but to the world. Among others, you can salute brilliant scientists Pierre and Marie Curie, great philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau, writers Victor Hugo (Les Miserables) and Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo), Leon Gambetta — the creator of the Third French Republic, and many more illustrious individuals.
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