Pantheon, from a church to a Temple of the Republic
The Pantheon is located on the Rive Gauche in the 5th District.
Some 2000 years ago, the Romans developed antic Paris or Lutetia on the Ile de la Cité.
Soon the island became too small for an ever-growing population.
A new town with its administrative buildings, public baths, amphitheatre, shops, workshops and villas were built on Mons Lucotitus – modern day Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève and Latin Quarter district.
The Pantheon was built on the site of the Roman forum.
The land was the property of the prestigious Abbaye Sainte-Geneviève founded by King Clovis and his wife Clotilde in 507AD.
In 1744, King Louis XV believed that his prayers to Sainte-Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris had helped him recover from a long illness and wanted to give thanks to the saint.
He commissioned the architect Soufflot with the construction of a new Eglise Sainte-Geneviève for the abbey.
The foundation work lasted nine years, as the workers discovered extensive vestiges of Roman pottery workshops.
The first stone was eventually laid in 1764!
Soufflot died in 1780.
His assistant Rondelet took over the construction work.
The church was completed in 1790.
Sainte-Geneviève Church, as the Pantheon was initially known, was very different from today.
It boasted two towers, three entrances and a dome with forty windows.
It luckily escaped demolition during the French Revolution, as a decree from 1791 stated that the church would become a Pantheon or Temple of the Republic dedicated to receive the ashes of the Great Men of the Nation.
The architect Quatremère was commissioned for the alteration work.
He reduced the height of the towers, removed the cross that capped the dome and closed most of its openings and changed the pediment.
In 1806 Napoleon returned the Pantheon to its religious purpose, changed the pediment and re-placed the cross.
In 1830 Louis-Philippe decided that, after all, Sainte-Geneviève Church should be a Pantheon.
He built a new pediment and stripped the building from any religious connotation.
In 1850 Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte re-converted it into a church, and built a new pediment.
The cross was re-placed on the top of the dome, and has never been removed since that date!
The Pantheon’s imposing peristyle is a replica of the Pantheon’s in Rome.
It is raised 11m above street level and is supported by twenty-two 20m high Corinthian columns.
The three bronze doors are topped with marble sculptures representing respectively the Baptism of Clovis, Sainte-Geneviève and the Hun Attila.
In 1837 David d’Angers sculpted the current pediment that depicts the Fatherland bestowing its rewards.
The philosophers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are represented seated on the left hand side of the sculpture.
The gigantic building – 83m high by 110m long and 82m wide – is shaped like a Greek cross.
It boasts four naves and is topped with an impressive dome.
The huge volumes impress the visitors as soon as they set foot inside the building.
There are no benches, no chairs, no altar … only gigantic murals, Corinthian columns and sculptures bathed in the light that pour in from the dome’s openings.
Pantheon’s interior decoration
The Marquis of Chennevières (Director of Fine Arts in the 1870’s) commissioned the best artists of the time for its decoration.
Puvis de Chavannes and Jean-Paul Laurens were commissioned for the murals.
The theme of the scenes revolves around the beginnings of French Christianity and monarchy through the life of Saint-Denis, the first bishop and patron saint of Paris.
The other major theme is the life of Sainte Geneviève, the other patron saint of the city (her childhood, miracles, siege of Paris by Attila and his Hun warriors).
The other murals represent Emperor Charlemagne, King Clovis’ baptism, Joan of Arc’s and King Saint Louis’ life…
Sculptural groups representing scenes from the French Revolution were placed in front of the gigantic columns supporting the dome.
La Convention Nationale sculpted by Sicard in the early 1920’s, and the Death of Sainte Geneviève (located by the entrance to the crypt) are among the monumental sculptures that adorn the interior of the Pantheon.
The Pantheon is also home to Foucault’s pendulum.
The instrument that demonstrates the rotation of the earth was removed and replaced many times, but has been in its current place since 1995.
The building was returned to secular use in 1885 and converted into a Pantheon.
The ashes of the Great Men (and women) of the Nation are laid to rest in the crypt of the Pantheon.
Each of them contributed in their own way to the greatness and glory of the Nation.
The crypt consists of four vaults that follow the floor-plan of the church.
Each vault is placed under one of the arms of the cross, but the southern vault has no grave.
A large vestibule, where you’ll find the graves and statues of the philosophers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, accesses the crypt.
On November 11, 1920, the heart of Léon Gambetta (1838-1882), the founder of the Third Republic, was placed in an urn located by the entrance to the vestibule.
The western vault is the longest and largest and is divided in two corridors.
The right hand side shelters, among others, the remains of forty-one important figures of the Empire.
It includes the ashes of the jurist François Denis Tronchet (1726-1806) who wrote the Civil Code, or Code Napoleon, that defines the principles of French common law.
Tronchet was the first Senator of the Empire to be buried in the Pantheon.
One of the vaults located in the left hand side corridor contains the ashes of Victor Hugo and those of the writer Emile Zola.
Alexandre Dumas senior (1802-1870) is considered a “new resident”, as his ashes were transferred to Hugo and Zola’s vault in 2002.
The authors were known for their republican ideas and their support to the creation of fundamental freedoms.
It is impossible to name all the men whose ashes were transferred to the Pantheon, but here’s a short list of names you might recognize.
The politician Jean Jaurès was considered the father of modern socialism.
Marie François Sadi Carnot (1837-1894) was the fourth president of the Third French Republic from 1887 until his assassination in 1894.
Paul Painlevé (1863-1933) served twice as Prime Minister during the Third Republic (September 12 to November 13, 1917 and April 17 to November 22,1925.
Adolphe-Sylvestre Félix Eboué (1884-1944) was the first overseas French resistant and Governor of Africa.
Victor Schoelcher (1804-1893) dedicated his life to the abolition of slavery.
Jean Moulin was a major hero of the French Resistance; the Germans executed him during WWII.
The author André Malraux became Minister of Culture; we owe him the classification of the Marais as a protected area.
Jean Monnet was one of the founding members of the European Community.
René Cassin was the author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948.
The ashes of the Nobel Prices Pierre and Marie Curie were placed together.
You will also find the tomb of the explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville.
Louis Braille (1809-1851) was the inventor of the alphabet for the blind.
The mathematician Gaspard Monge was a co-founder of the Ecole Polytechnique, and Jacques-Germain Soufflot (1713-1780) was the architect of the Pantheon.
The body of François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803), the leader of the Haitian Revolution, is not in the crypt but a commemorative plaque pays tribute to him.
Some Great Men of the Nation were disinterred from the Pantheon.
This was the case for the lawyer and member of the revolutionary Legislative Assembly Louis Michel le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau (1760-1793) who voted King Louis XVI’s execution.
Le Peletier was buried in the Pantheon in 1793 but his family removed his body in 1795.
Marat, the journalist and politician who was murdered in his bathtub, was buried in the Pantheon in 1793 but fell in disgrace in the months that followed.
His ashes were disinterred in 1795.
An official ceremony took place on May 27, 2015 to honour the memory of two women who were the first to be awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour for their heroic deeds during WWII.
The resistant Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, General de Gaulle’s niece, was deported to Ravensbruck camp in 1944; she died in 2002.
The resistant and anthropologist Germaine Tillion, died in 2008.
On request of their families, their remains were not buried in the Pantheon, but in their family vaults.
Place du Pantheon
The Rue Soufflot was named after the architect of the Pantheon.
It originates by the Boulevard Saint-Michel, a spot that boasts superb views of the imposing building.
It ends on Place du Pantheon, a square framed by two identical Classical buildings recognizable for their elegant convex facades.
Soufflot built the Faculty of Law on the northern side.
The city hall of the 5th District, built on the opposite pavement by the architect Hittorf during the 19th century, is a perfect replica of the Faculty of Law.
The Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (library) was built in 1850 on the northern side of the Place du Pantheon.
The long, austere building contains a priceless collection of manuscripts and old prints.
It stands at the corner of Rue Valette, one of the oldest and most important streets in the Quartier Latin.
It used to be crossed by seven lanes, hence its ancient name of Rue des Sept-Voies (seven roads).
It leads to the lower section of the Latin Quarter.
Directions: 5th District
RER B Station: Luxembourg
Coordinates and map Pantheon: Lat 48.846374 – Long 2.345340