We left the Corinthian columns and the marble floor of the Pantheon’s west facade and entered the building to find more Corinthian columns and marble everywhere. And everywhere we looked we were reminded that this was once a church but then a temple and then a church and then a temple and then a church and finally just a temple.
King Louis XV wanted to build a great church in honor of Sainte Genevieve and Jacques-Germain Soufflot was hired in 1755 to do the job. Soufflot ignored the late baroque and rococo styles of his contemporaries and came up with a design that would later be called neoclassical. He looked back at some of the great buildings of Rome and Greece for inspiration and modeled his dome after Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Construction began in 1758 but the church was still not completed by the time of Soufflot’s death in 1780. It took his pupil Jean Baptiste Rondelet ten more years to solve various financial and engineering problems and complete construction by 1790.
King Louis XV dreamed of a great church in honor of Sainte Genevieve but it wasn’t completed until the time of the Revolution and the revolutionaries had other ideas. In 1791 the National Assembly assigned Quatremere de Quincy to turn L’Eglise Sainte Genevieve into a mausoleum by filling in most of the building’s windows. Napoleon decided in 1806 to make it a church again and it stayed a church through the monarchies of Louis XVIII and Charles X but in 1830 it reverted back to a mausoleum and was called the Temple of Glory. With the birth of the Second Republic in 1848 the building was renamed the Temple of Humanity. In 1851 Napoleon III became emperor and it became a church again but in 1885 when France was a republic again it was finally decided that it would be the permanent Pantheon of today. And then with great fanfare they buried Victor Hugo. Millions of Parisians witnessed Hugo’s funeral procession. Today more than 70 of France’s greatest have joined Hugo in the Pantheon’s crypt. Among them is Jacques-Germain Soufflot.
The art inside the Pantheon is a reflection of the building’s history as either a Catholic church or a secular temple during the tempestuous history of France in the late 18th and entire 19th centuries. Just about all of the sculpture is secular in nature with prominent themes relating to the Revolution. And just about all of the paintings on the walls are religious in nature with tributes to the great saints of France.
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.
The first painting we saw as we entered the building was that of Saint-Denis picking up his head by Leon Bonnat. Soon we noticed that entire walls were reserved for particular saints. This all started in the 1870s when it was decided to commission some of the country’s leading artists to cover the walls that were installed to block the windows of the original church. There’s a wall devoted to Saint Louis and another to Saint Joan. Even Charlemagne has a wall — well, he was declared a saint for awhile. Several walls are reserved for Sainte Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris.
In a few future postings we will take a closer look at some of these walls.