Panthéon, Paris

Panthéon, Paris – © David H. Enzel, 2023

The Panthéon is a monument in the 5th arrondissement of Paris. It stands in the Latin Quarter, atop the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, in the center of the Place du Panthéon, which was named after it. The edifice was built between 1758 and 1790, from designs by Jacques-Germain Soufflot, at the behest of King Louis XV of France; the king intended it as a church dedicated to Saint Genevieve, Paris’s patron saint, whose relics were to be housed in the church. Neither Soufflot nor Louis XV lived to see the church completed.

By the time the construction was finished, the French Revolution had started; the National Constituent Assembly voted in 1791 to transform the Church of Saint Genevieve into a mausoleum for the remains of distinguished French citizens, modeled on the Pantheon in Rome which had been used in this way since the 17th century. The first panthéonisé was Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, although his remains were removed from the building a few years later. The Panthéon was twice restored to church usage in the course of the 19th century—although Soufflot’s remains were transferred inside it in 1829—until the French Third Republic finally decreed the building’s exclusive use as a mausoleum in 1881. The placement of Victor Hugo’s remains in the crypt in 1885 was its first entombment in over 50 years.

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. 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.

In 1851, Léon Foucault conducted a demonstration of diurnal motion at the Panthéon by suspending a pendulum from the ceiling, a copy of which is still visible today and is depicted below in all its glory.

As of December 2021 the remains of 81 people (75 men and six women) had been transferred to the Panthéon. More than half of all the panthéonisations were made under Napoleon’s rule during the First Empire. Several examples demonstrate the great contributions France has made to the world.

Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) was philosopher (philosophe), writer, and composer. His political philosophy influenced the progress of the Age of Enlightenment throughout Europe, as well as aspects of the French Revolution and the development of modern political, economic, and educational thought. His Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract are cornerstones in modern political and social thought.

Rousseau was born in Geneva, which was at the time a city-state and a Protestant associate of the Swiss Confederacy (now a canton of Switzerland). He died in 1778 and was buried on the Île des Peupliers, a tiny wooded island in a lake near Ermenonville in the Kingdom of France. His grave became a place of pilgrimage for his many admirers. In 1794, his remains were moved to the Panthéon, where they were placed near the remains of Voltaire.

Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778) was a French Enlightenment writer, philosopher (philosophe) and historian. Known by his nom de plume M. de Voltaire, he was famous for his wit, in addition to his criticism of Christianity—especially of the Roman Catholic Church—and of slavery. Voltaire was an advocate of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and separation of church and state.

Voltaire was a versatile and prolific writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, histories, but also scientific expositions. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and 2,000 books and pamphlets. Voltaire was one of the first authors to become renowned and commercially successful internationally. He was an outspoken advocate of civil liberties and was at constant risk from the strict censorship laws of the Catholic French monarchy. His polemics witheringly satirized intolerance and religious dogma, as well as the French institutions of his day. His best-known work and magnum opus, Candide, is a novella which comments on, criticizes and ridicules many events, thinkers and philosophies of his time.

Because of his well-known criticism of the Church, which he had refused to retract before his death, Voltaire was denied a Christian burial in Paris, but friends and relations managed to bury his body secretly at the Abbey of Scellières in Champagne. His heart and brain were embalmed separately.

On July 11 1791, the National Assembly of France, regarding Voltaire as a forerunner of the French Revolution, had his remains brought back to Paris and enshrined in the Panthéon. An estimated million people attended the procession, which stretched throughout Paris. There was an elaborate ceremony, including music composed for the event by André Grétry.

Louis Braille

Louis Braille (1809 – 1852) was a French educator and the inventor of a reading and writing system, named braille after him, intended for use by visually impaired people. His system is used worldwide and remains virtually unchanged to this day. On the centenary of his death, his remains were moved to the Panthéon in Paris. In a symbolic gesture, Braille’s hands were left in Coupvray, reverently buried near his home.

Simone Veil

Simone Veil (née Jacob) (1927 – 2017) was a French magistrate, Holocaust survivor, and politician who served as Health Minister in several governments and was President of the European Parliament from 1979 to 1982, the first woman to hold that office. As health minister, she is best remembered for advancing women’s rights in France, in particular for the 1975 law that legalized abortion, today known as the Loi Veil). From 1998 to 2007, she was a member of the Constitutional Council, France’s highest legal authority.

A Holocaust survivor, of both Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, she was a firm believer in European integration as a way of guaranteeing peace. She served as president of the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah, from 2000 to 2007, then subsequently as honorary president. In a ceremony held at the Panthéon in January 2007, former French president Jacques Chirac, and Simone Veil, then president of the Fondation pour la mémoire de la Shoah, honor those who risked their lives to shelter thousands of Jews at Chambon-sur-Lignon, France.

Among many honors, she was made an honorary dame in 1998, was elected to the Académie Française in 2008, and in 2012 received the grand cross of the Légion d’honneur, the highest class of the highest French order of merit.

Simone Veil and her husband were buried at the Panthéon on July 1, 2018. Her eulogy was given by President Emmanuel Macron.

Joséphine Baker

Joséphine Baker (1906-1975), was an American-born French dancer, singer and actress. Her career was centered primarily in Europe, mostly in her adopted France. She was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, the 1927 silent film Siren of the Tropics, directed by Mario Nalpas and Henri Étiévant.

Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri but she renounced her U.S. citizenship and became a French national after her marriage to French industrialist Jean Lion in 1937. She raised her children in France.

Baker aided the French Resistance during World War II. After the war, she was awarded the Resistance Medal by the French Committee of National Liberation, the Croix de Guerre by the French military, and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle. Baker sang: “I have two loves, my country and Paris.”

Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States and is noted for her contributions to the civil rights movement.

On November 30, 2021, she was inducted into the Panthéon in Paris, the first black woman to receive one of the highest honors in France. As her resting place remains in Monaco Cemetery, a cenotaph (a monument to someone buried elsewhere) was installed in vault 13 of the crypt in the Panthéon.

You can see more photographs of the Panthéon on my photography website.

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