Guide Tour of Panthéon, Paris, France

The Panthéon is a monument in the Latin Quarter of Paris, France. It stands in the Latin Quarter, atop the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, in the centre of the Place du Panthéon, which was named after it. It was conceived by Louis XV as a grand neo-classical church honouring St. Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris. During the turbulent years of the 19th century, as regimes changed, it alternated in its role as a religious and patriotic monument.

Since 1885, the year of Victor Hugo’s death and burial in the Pantheon, it has been the last resting place for the great writers, scientists, generals, churchmen and politicians who have made the history of France. Today it is a civic building that serves as a repository for the remains of great French citizens, including Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Èmile Zola, and Marie Curie.

Its design exemplified the Neoclassical return to a strictly logical use of classical architectural elements. The masterpiece of the architect Soufflot, a grand building, the monumental peristyle is inspired by Agrippa’s Pantheon in Rome. The architecture of the Panthéon is an early example of Neoclassicism, surmounted by a dome that owes some of its character to Bramante’s Tempietto. The view from the dome is marvellous.

The Panthéon is a cruciform building with a high dome over the crossing and lower saucer-shaped domes (covered by a sloping roof) over the four arms. The facade, like that of the Roman Pantheon, is formed by a porch of Corinthian columns and triangular pediment attached to the ends of the eastern arm. The interior is decorated with mosaics and paintings of scenes from French history, some of which were executed by Puvis de Chavannes. The pediment has sculptures by Pierre-Jean David d’Angers of post-Revolutionary patriots.

The successive changes in the Panthéon’s purpose resulted in modifications of the pedimental sculptures and the capping of the dome by a cross or a flag; some of the originally existing windows were blocked up with masonry in order to give the interior a darker and more funereal atmosphere, which compromised somewhat Soufflot’s initial attempt at combining the lightness and brightness of the Gothic cathedral with classical principles.

In 1851, Léon Foucault conducted a demonstration of diurnal motion at the Panthéon by suspending a pendulum from the ceiling, it proves the rotation of the Earth, a copy of which is still visible today.

A decorative program. From 1874, paintings on mounted canvas illustrating the story of Saint Geneviève and the epic of the Christian and monarchical origins of France adorned the sanctuary. In 2020, works by Anselm Kiefer and Pascal Dusapin are added, anchoring the monument in its century.

Discover the great personalities buried in the crypt, who draw the face of our national identity. After the Revolution, the building was converted into a mausoleum for the great philosophers, military, artists, scientists, and heroes of the French Republic.

The Pantheon is a building 110 m long and 84 m wide. The main façade is decorated with a portico with Corinthian columns, surmounted by a triangular pediment made by David d’Angers. This pediment represents the Fatherland (in the center) giving Liberty and protecting the Sciences on its right – represented by many great scholars (Xavier Bichat, Berthollet, Gaspard Monge, Laplace …), philosophers (Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau …), writers (Fénelon, Pierre Corneille …) and artists (Jacques-Louis David …) – and on his left History – represented by the great figures of the State (Napoleon Bonaparte …) and students of the École Polytechnique.

The building, in the shape of a Greek cross, is crowned by an 83 meter high dome, topped with a skylight. The interior is decorated by academic painters like Puvis de Chavannes, Antoine-Jean Gros, Léon Bonnat or Cabanel.

The final plan of the dome was accepted in 1777, and it was completed in 1790. It was designed to rival those of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Unlike the dome of Les Invalides in Paris, which has a wooden framework, the dome is constructed entirely of stone. It is actually three domes, one within the other, with the painted ceiling, visible from below, on the second dome. The dome is 83.0 metres high, compared with the tallest dome in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica at 136.57 metres.

Three domes are nested inside each other: The outer dome is of stone covered with strips of lead, and not of framework, as was traditional at the time (as at Saint-Louis-des-Invalides). Its implementation is also a real technical feat. Adhémar, in his Traite de charpente, explains the choice of a stone dome by the stability necessary for a large building ordinarily subject to oscillations by the wind.

From the inside, one can see a coffered dome, open in the center by an oculus (round opening). This low dome rests on the lower part of the drum, at the level of the exterior colonnade, which buttresses the whole. Between these two domes, exterior and interior, is built a third intermediate technical dome in the shape of a half-egg, which supports the stone lantern, which weighs more than five tons.

The Apotheosis of Saint Geneviève by Antoine Gros is painted on the inside of this cupola, visible through the oculus of the inside cupola. This intermediate dome is not made up of a continuous stone mantle like the outer dome: it is openworked by four arches which allow the loads to be lowered from the lantern to the batteries. As for the openings, they allow the light taken in by the windows in the upper part of the drum to pass between the two lower domes to halo the painting ofthe Apotheosis.

Looking up from the crossing of the transept beneath the dome, the painting by Jean-Antoine Gros, the Apotheosis of Saint Genevieve (1811–1834), is visible through the opening in the lowest cupola. The triangle in the center symbolizes the Trinity, surrounded by a halo of light. The Hebrew characters spell the name of God. The only character seen in full is Saint Genevieve herself, seated on a rocky promontory.

This method of circulating light can be compared with that adopted by Soufflot’s predecessors; for example, the Pantheon in Rome and its open-air central oculus, or the dome of the Invalides in Paris by Hardouin-Mansart. There is also a triple-envelope dome at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, designed shortly before by the English architect Christopher Wren, but with a framed dome. The construction system can be examined on the model produced by Rondelet: it is exhibited in the north annex chapel of the building.

In the design of the dome, which weighs 17,000 tons, Soufflot used the curve of the “reversed catenary” in the design of the intermediate cupola. This is influenced by the theory of the English mathematician Robert Hooke, published in 1678: the curve formed by a suspension chain, when reversed, gives the shape of a “perfect” masonry arch, following and containing the line of thrust, and which will find a mathematical formulation in 1691, by Jacques Bernoulli, Leibniz, and Huygens.

The groups around the painting, made during the Restoration of the Monarchy, represent Kings of France who played an important role in protecting the church. To the left of Saint Genevieve is a group including Clovis, the first King to convert to Christianity. The second group is centred around Charlemagne, who created the first universities.

The third group is centred around Louis IX of France, or Saint Louis, with the Crown of Thorns which he brought back from the Holy Land to place in the church of Sainte-Chapelle. The last group is centred around Louis XVIII, the last King of the Restoration, and his niece, looking up into the clouds at the martyred Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. The angels in the scene are carrying the Chartre, the document by which Louis XVIII re-established the church after the French Revolution.

The four pendentives, or arches, which support the dome are decorated with paintings from the same period by François Gérard depicting Glory, Death, The Nation and Justice (1821–37).

Facade, peristyle and entrance
The facade and peristyle on the east side, modeled after a Greek temple, features Corinthian columns and pedimental sculpture by David d’Angers, completed in 1837. The sculpture on this pediment, replacing an early pediment with religious themes, represents “The Nation distributing crowns handed to her by Liberty to great men, civil and military, while history inscribes their names”. 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 École Polytechnique. Below is the inscription: “To the great men, from a grateful nation” (“Aux grands hommes la patrie reconnaissante”). This was added in 1791, when the Panthéon was created. It was removed during the Restoration of the monarchy, then put back in 1830.

Below the peristyle are five sculpted bas-reliefs; the two reliefs over the main doors, commissioned during the Revolution, represent the two main purposes of the building: “Public Education” and “Patriotic Devotion”. The facade originally had large windows, but they were replaced when the church became a mausoleum, to make the interior darker and more somber.

Narthex and naves
The primary decoration of the Western Nave is a series of paintings, beginning in the Narthex, depicting the lives of Saint Denis, the patron saint of Paris, and longer series on the life of Saint Genevieve, by Puvis de Chavannes, Alexandre Cabanel, Jules Eugène Lenepveu and other notable history painters of the 19th century. The paintings of the Southern nave and Northern Nave continue this series on the Christian heroes of France, including scenes from the lives of Charlemagne, Clovis, Louis IX of France and Joan of Arc. From 1906 to 1922 the Panthéon was the site of Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture The Thinker.

The crypt covers the entire surface of the building. Indeed, it is made up of four galleries, each under each of the arms of the nave. However, it is not really buried like a cellar since windows, at the top of each gallery, open onto the outside.

One enters the crypt through a room decorated with Doric columns (in reference to the temple of Neptune at Paestum). Going forward, we discover, in the center of the building, the vast circular vaulted room and the small central room, located just under the dome. The dimensions of the crypt make it seem very vast. The 81 current hosts are not cramped since the total capacity of reception is about 300 places. One of the hypotheses put forward to explain this would be that Louis XV wanted to make it a mausoleum for the Bourbons.

Interment in the crypt of the Panthéon is severely restricted and is allowed only by a parliamentary act for “National Heroes”. Similar high honours exist in Les Invalides for historical military leaders such as Napoléon, Turenne and Vauban.

Among those buried in its necropolis are Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Jean Moulin, Louis Braille, Jean Jaurès and Soufflot, its architect. In 1907 Marcellin Berthelot was buried with his wife Mme Sophie Berthelot. Marie Curie was interred in 1995, the first woman interred on merit. Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion, heroines of the French resistance, were interred in 2015. Simone Veil was interred in 2018, and her husband Antoine Veil was interred alongside her so that they would not be separated.

The widely repeated story that the remains of Voltaire were stolen by religious fanatics in 1814 and thrown into a garbage heap is false. Such rumours resulted in the coffin being opened in 1897, which confirmed that his remains were still present.

On 30 November 2002, in an elaborate but solemn procession, six Republican Guards carried the coffin of Alexandre Dumas (1802–1870), the author of The Three Musketeers and other famous novels, to the Panthéon. Draped in a blue-velvet cloth inscribed with the Musketeers’ motto “Un pour tous, tous pour un” (“One for all, all for one”), the remains had been transported from their original interment site in the Cimetière de Villers-Cotterêts in Aisne, France. In his speech, President Jacques Chirac stated that an injustice was being corrected with the proper honouring of one of France’s greatest authors.

In January 2007, President Jacques Chirac unveiled a plaque in the Panthéon 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 Panthéon 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. This plaque says:

Under the cloak of hatred and darkness that spread over France during the years of occupation, thousands of lights refused to be extinguished. Named as “Righteous among the Nations” or remaining anonymous, women and men, of all backgrounds and social classes, saved Jews from anti-Semitic persecution and the extermination camps. Braving the risks involved, they embodied the honour of France, and its values of justice, tolerance and humanity.

The Pantheon in science
In 1851, physicist Léon Foucault demonstrated the rotation of the Earth by constructing a 67-metre pendulum beneath the central dome. The original sphere from the pendulum was temporarily displayed at the Panthéon in the 1990s (starting in 1995) during renovations at the Musée des Arts et Métiers. The original pendulum was later returned to the Musée des Arts et Métiers, and a copy is now displayed at the Panthéon. It has been listed since 1920 as a monument historique by the French Ministry of Culture.

Foucault ‘s pendulum is associated with the history of the Pantheon in Paris. When, in 1851, the physicist Léon Foucault was looking for a tall building to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth, the Panthéon, a civil place, seemed the right choice. 1902 will mark another stage, both scientific and political, of an affirmation of the scientific spirit freed from all religious influence. Since 1995, the pendulum has been beating again in the nave. Momentarily removed during restoration work on the building in 2014, it was reinstalled on September 15, 2015.

By its location in height in Paris, the Panthéon will be used as receiver with the experiments on the TSF of Eugène Ducretet. The cross of the Pantheon also served as a fundamental point for the New French Triangulation (NTF).

The Pantheon in art and cluture
Its dominant position at the top of the Sainte-Geneviève hill, like its original shape, has been able, since its construction, to attract the eye of established artists such as Van Gogh, Marc Chagall or that of amateurs. Republican symbol, it will be put in poem by Victor Hugo, it is also the subject of several books.

It is now also an exhibition space where contemporary artists such as Gérard Garouste or Ernesto Neto take advantage of the vast space of the nave to hang their works there.

On the other hand, the Pantheon has only six writers including (Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Émile Zola), a single painter (Joseph-Marie Vien, official artist of the first Empire) and no musicians. From 2018, on the occasion of entering the Pantheon (November 11, 2020) of the remains of the writer Maurice Genevoix, also a veteran of the First World War.