The Pantheon of Paris, monument to the memory of great men

The Pantheon of Paris is a famous monument located in the 5th district of the capital, in the heart of the Latin Quarter, on the Sainte-Geneviève mountain. This neo-classical religious building, whose architecture is based on the façade of the Pantheon in Rome, is located in the center of the Place du Panthéon, near the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont and the Luxembourg Gardens. Initially built in the middle of the 18th century as a church to house the hunt of Sainte-Geneviève, the Pantheon is, since the French Revolution, the monument intended to honor the great characters who marked the history of France. Personalities such as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo or more recently Simone Veil have joined the Pantheon of Paris where on the facade of the monument one can read “to the great men, the grateful fatherland”. In this article, we will look at the history of the Pantheon, its amazing architecture, as well as the famous French personalities buried in this building considered as a place of memory.

On the facade of the Pantheon in Paris is inscribed “to the great men the grateful fatherland”.

The history of the Pantheon in Paris

In 1744, Louis XV, suffering from a serious illness and convalescing in Metz, made a vow, if he recovered, to have a church dedicated to Sainte-Geneviève built. Healed and back in Paris, Louis XV commissioned the Marquis de Marigny, director general of the king’s buildings, to build the monument, in place of the old abbey Sainte-Geneviève, then in ruins. Several architects were selected to carry out the project, but in 1755, the Marquis de Marigny chose the one designed by the architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot. Work on the Paris Pantheon began in 1757 and Louis XV laid the first stone of the building on September 6, 1764. The initial project imagined by the architect Soufflot is a church with a dome, in the shape of a Greek cross composed of 4 short branches of equal length and width. For his project, Soufflot was inspired by Greek architecture, while taking up the lightness of construction of Gothic buildings. The construction work lasted until 1790, assisted by the engineer Emiland Gauther and the architect Jean-Baptiste Rondelet. After Soufflot’s death in 1780, the architects Rondelet and Brébion, former collaborators of Soufflot, took charge of the finalization of the work of the Pantheon in Paris, but they distorted the project by depriving it of the bold and original part imagined by Soufflot. During the French Revolution, the monument underwent a deconfessionalization, as well as a purification of the architecture. In 1791, the Constituent Assembly (former national assembly) transformed this church “Sainte-Geneviève” into the “Pantheon of Great Men” and entrusted the architect Quatremère de Quincy with the task of adapting the place to this new function. Thus, the very first ashes of Mirabeau are welcomed in the Pantheon of Paris, which will serve from now on as a necropolis to the exceptional personalities having contributed to the greatness of France. The two bell towers planned by Soufflot, as well as the 39 windows of the nave intended to illuminate the building, are removed.

The Pantheon of Paris seen from inside, under the dome

The architectural project of the Pantheon of Paris

To realize his project, the architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot was inspired by different registers. The vaulted structure of the nave is inspired by the Gothic movement and the domes are inspired by the Byzantine style. The drum dome, in classical style, refers to the Tempietto of Bramante, a temple in Rome. The columns are, as for them, of Greek-Roman style. With this mixture of styles, the church of Saint-Geneviève was considered the first eclectic building in the capital, although it is generally classified as a neo-classical monument due to the period of construction. The Pantheon of Paris is 110 meters long and 84 meters wide and its main facade is decorated with a portico with Corinthian columns, topped by a triangular pediment. In the center, a sculpture for the pediment by David d’Angers represents the Fatherland crowning famous men. The Pantheon of Paris, in the shape of a Greek cross, is crowned by a central dome weighing 17,000 tons, topped by a lantern that rises to 83 meters. The interior of the dome was entirely decorated by academic painters, such as Antoine-Jean Gros, Leon Bonnat or Cabanel, a great academic painter who was famous during the Second Empire. One of the elements invisible to the public remains the two cupolas nested under the main dome and the outer dome, covered with strips of lead is made of stone, and not wood frame, thus providing the necessary stability to the building against the weather. From the interior, one can admire a low dome called “cupola with box” opened in the center by an oculus (a round opening). The third dome of technical type, invisible, and of the shape of a half egg supports the lantern of stones whose weight approaches five tons. This intermediate dome is composed of four arches allowing the loads of the lantern to be brought down to the pillars. Interior windows around the drum allow light to enter the building. A semi-buried crypt, composed of 4 galleries, extends under the entire surface of the building and receives the coffins of the greatest servants of the State. Access to the Pantheon crypt is via a room decorated with Doric columns (sleek Greek columns). The generous dimensions of the Pantheon crypt allow it to accommodate up to 300 burials. Since 1920, the Pantheon of Paris is classified as a historical monument.

Voltaire, French philosopher and writer, was welcomed to the Pantheon in 1791

The personalities buried in the Paris Pantheon

To date, 81 personalities are buried in the crypt of the Pantheon in Paris but only 74 of them have a tomb. Among these personalities are 5 women and Mirabeau was the first “great man” to enter the Pantheon in Paris. Some were also admitted to the Pantheon in Paris but their remains were never transferred, such as Descartes, François-Joseph Bara and Joseph Viala. Four of them are of Italian origin, and there is also a Dutch personality and another from Neuchâtel, these 6 personalities being linked to Napoleon I. The architect Soufflot, designer of the building, is buried in the Pantheon, as well as Marc Schœlcher and his son Victor Schœlcher, journalist and politician. The most famous personalities buried in the Pantheon in Paris remain:

  • Mirabeau: buried in 1791, his body was finally removed in 1794.
  • Voltaire: the French philosopher and writer was buried in 1791.
  • Jean-Paul Marat: buried in 1793, this journalist and revolutionary politician was removed in 1795 for treason.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau: the philosopher and writer was buried in 1794 in the Pantheon in Paris.
  • Jacques-Germain Soufflot: the architect who founded the Pantheon in Paris was buried here in 1829.
  • Victor Hugo: the writer, whose body was laid to rest under the Arc de Triomphe during the night of May 22, 1885, was later moved to the Pantheon in June.
  • François-Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers, known as Marceau: part of the body of this famous general of the French Republic was buried in the Pantheon in 1889.
  • Sadi Carnot: President of the French Republic from 1887 to 1894, Sadi Carnot joined the crypt of the Pantheon after his assassination in 1894.
  • Emile Zola: the famous French writer and journalist joined the Pantheon of Paris in 1908, 6 years after his death.
  • Léon Gambetta: the heart of the French politician rests in an urn located in the staircase leading to the crypt.
  • Jean Jaurès: the remains of the socialist politician assassinated on the eve of the First World War entered the Pantheon in 1924.
  • Victor Schœlcher: the politician and figure of the struggle for the abolition of slavery entered the Pantheon in Paris in 1949.
  • Louis Braille: the inventor of writing for the blind joined the Pantheon in 1952.
  • Jean Moulin: The presumed ashes of Jean Moulin were transferred to the Pantheon on December 19, 1964, during the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the Liberation, under the presidency of General de Gaulle.
  • René Cassin: the creator of Unesco and author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights joined the Pantheon in 1987.
  • Jean Monnet: the founder of the idea of the European Union rests in the Pantheon since 1988, one hundred years after his birth.
  • Pierre and Marie Curie: in 1995, Marie Curie was the first woman to enter the Pantheon in Paris.
  • André Malraux: the Minister of Culture under President de Gaulle joined the Pantheon in 1996, 20 years after his death.
  • Alexandre Dumas: in 2002, the writer was buried in the Pantheon under the presidency of Jacques Chirac.
  • Pierre Brossolette: the remains of the French Resistance fighter and politician who died in 1944 joined the Pantheon in 2015.
  • Germaine Tillion: who died in 2008, Germaine Tillion is the second woman to enter the Pantheon in 2015.
  • Simone Veil: a great French politician and academician, Simone Veil was buried in the Pantheon in 2018.
  • Josephine Baker: the famous Parisian dancer and showgirl who died in 1975 has joined the Paris Pantheon in 2021.

Opening hours, access by public transport… To get to the Paris Pantheon or to organize your visit, we invite you to consult the website www.paris-pantheon.fr

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