As far back as 507, this site was chosen by King Clovis – the first Frankish Merovingian King – for a basilica to serve as a tomb for him and his wife Clothilde. In 512 Sainte-Geneviève, patroness of Paris was buried here (then moved to a new St Geneviève just down behind the Pantheon). The site sits at the top of a hill overlooking the Latin quarter.
King Louis XV vowed in 1744 that if he recovered from his illness he would replace the ruined church of the Abbey of St Genevieve with an edifice worthy of the patron saint of Paris. He did recover, and entrusted Abel-François Poisson, marquis de Marigny with the fulfillment of his vow. In 1755, Marigny commissioned Jacques-Germain Soufflot to design the church, with construction beginning two years later. He had the intention of combining the lightness and brightness of the gothic cathedral with classical principles, but its role as a mausoleum required the great Gothic windows to be blocked. There are 3 domes, allowing the visitor to look through the inner oculus to the painting above. The effect of the dome is spectacular. In antiquity, one could barely see any of the dome when approaching from the outside, it was obscured by the porch and the intermediate block, so it was a surprise when one entered the rotunda. Ones eyes are carried up toward the oculus, which lets in enough light to make the whole area seem light and airy. The coffers give the effect of producing a magnitude of lights and darks in the dome, constantly changing as the beam of light and its projected circle from the oculus move with the sun. This gives one the impression that the building is dynamic and not solid and weighty, but light, airy, and uplifting, like the sky outside on a clear day. The dome seems to expand as one looks at it.
As you walk in, you see the spacious interior shown above. The floorplan shows a Greek-cross layout, 110m long and 85m wide (361 x 279 ft). The large dome reaches a height of 83m (279ft). The portico, with large Corinthian columns was modeled after the 2nd century Pantheon in Rome.
The remodeled Abbey of St. Genevieve was finally completed in 1790, coinciding with the early stages of the French Revolution. It was then when the Revolutionist government changed the church into a mausoleum, a place to bury exceptional Frenchmen who had sacrificed their lives for their country or who had done something great for France. The centerpiece is this ensemble seen above, “The National Convention” by Francois Leon-Sicard done in 1920. Above in the half dome (done 1874 to 1885) by Ernest Hebert is Christ teaching the angel of France with St Genevieve and Joan d’Arc to the left and the City of Paris kneeling to the right.
The triptych (painting in three parts) in the apse, behind the sculptures, “Vers La Glorie” was done in 1902-1905 by Edward Detaille which has been called a pictorial atlas of the revolution.
Soufflot’s masterstroke is concealed from casual view: the triple dome, each shell fitted within the others, permits a view through the oculus of the coffered inner dome of the second dome, frescoed by Antoine Gros with The Apotheosis of Saint Genevieve. The outermost dome is built of stone bound together with iron clamps and covered with lead sheathing, rather than of carpentry construction, as was the common French practice of the period.
If you look carefully, you can see a wire coming from the center of the dome. It goes all the way down to the floor to an installation of Foucault’s famous pendulum. In 1851, physicist Léon Foucault demonstrated the rotation of the earth by his experiment conducted in the Panthéon, by constructing a 67 meter Foucault pendulum beneath the central dome. In fact, it is an accurate clock of sorts and the numbers on the sides, correspond to hours in the day.
Behind “La Convention Nationale” is a statue of Mirabeau by Jean-Antoine Injabert done in 1889. It’s obscure location deserves a little explanation. During the French Revolution, he was a moderate, favoring a constitutional monarchy built on the model of Great Britain. He unsuccessfully conducted secret negotiations with the French monarchy in an effort to reconcile it with the Revolution.
He received a grand burial, and it was for him that the Panthéon in Paris was created as a burial place for great Frenchmen. In 1792 his secret dealings with the king were uncovered, and in 1794 his remains were removed from the Pantheon and were replaced with those of Marat. His remains were then buried anonymously in Clamart’s graveyard.
The statue to the left is of Louis Lazare Hoche (1768-1797) who was a French soldier who became a general in the Revolutionary army. When the Gardes Françaises disbanded in 1789 he had reached the rank of corporal, and thereafter he served in various line regiments up to the time of his receiving a commission in 1792, and became a general in 1793.
The Gardes Francais shared responsibility for guarding the exterior of the Palace of Versailles with the Gardes Suisses. In addition, the French Guards had responsibility for maintaining public order in Paris, in support of the various police forces of the capital. The officers of the regiment had negligently left day-to-day control in the hands of the non-commissioned officers, and had limited interaction with their men. These considerations led to mass desertions from June 27 on and the final defection of virtually all the rank and file on July 14. Reportedly only one sergeant stood by the officers when they tried to reassemble their men. The sympathy shown by the Gardes Françaises for the French Revolution at its outbreak was crucial to the initial success of the rising. The Gardes Françaises subsequently provided the professional core of the new Garde Nationale.
There are two fairly monumental statues as you enter, “Le Vengeur” seen above and the “Valmy – 1792”. The Vengeur du Peuple (“Avenger of the People”) was a 74-gun ship of the line of the French Navy, renamed in 1794 after the revolution, she was based in Brest, and took part in the “Glorious First of June” (also known as the “Third Battle of Ushant”, and in France as the “Bataille du 13 prairial an 2” or “Combat de Prairial”). All of these names are necessary because this naval battle in 1794 was the first and largest fleet action of the naval conflict between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the First French Republic during the French Revolutionary Wars.
By early spring of 1794, the situation in France was dire. With famine looming after the failure of the harvest and the blockade of French ports and trade, the French government was forced to look overseas for sustenance. Turning to France’s colonies in the Americas, and the agricultural bounty of the United States, the National Convention gave orders for the formation of a large convoy of sailing vessels to bring food to France. The battle was fought protecting this convoy. Both Britain and France claimed victory in the battle: Britain by virtue of capturing or sinking seven French ships without losing any of her own and remaining in control of the battle site; France because the vital convoy had passed through the Atlantic unharmed and arrived in France without significant loss.
The Vengeur was sunk during the battle. The sinking of Vengeur du Peuple was exploited for political purposes in France, as several sailors were said to have cried “Vive la Nation, vive la République!” (“Long live the nation, long live the republic”) from the bow of the ship as she foundered; this was bloated out of proportion by French politicians, who added that the sailors had waved the tricolour and sung La Marseillaise in defiance while they sank with the ship rather than to surrender. It became a rallying cry for the revolution, hence the statue.
The Battle of Valmy was the first major victory by the army of France during the French Revolution. The action took place in 1792 as Prussian troops commanded by the Duke of Brunswick attempted to march on Paris. Generals François Kellermann and Charles Dumouriez stopped the advance near the northern village of Valmy in Champagne-Ardenne.
In this early part of the French Revolutionary Wars known as the War of the First Coalition, the new French government was in most every way unproven, and thus the small, localized victory at Valmy became a huge psychological victory for the Revolution at large. The battle was considered a “miraculous” event and a “decisive defeat” for the vaunted Prussian army. After the battle, the newly-assembled National Convention was emboldened enough to formally declare the end of monarchy in France and the establishment of the First French Republic. Valmy permitted the development of the Revolution and all its resultant ripple effects, and for that it is regarded as one of the most significant battles of all time.
In each corner of the crossing is a separate sculpture. On the left above is a tribute to the generals of the revolution while to the right a tribute to the orators and statesmen.
In other corners there are monuments to Diderot and his equally famous friend Rousseau. Diderot is one of my favorites because he wanted information about the world to be accessible and relevant to anyone who wanted to know. According to Denis Diderot in the article “Encyclopédie”, the Encyclopédie’s aim was “to change the way people think.” He wanted to incorporate all of the world’s knowledge into the Encyclopédie and hoped that the text can disseminate all this information to the public and to future generations. It was unique because he had articles written by the leading intellectuals, spreading the message of the Age of Reason, the basis of how we view the world today.
The Age of Enlightenment (or Age of Reason) was a cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe and the United States, whose purpose was to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted science and intellectual interchange and opposed superstition, intolerance and abuses by church and state. Originating about 1650 to 1700, it was sparked by Spinoza, Locke, Newton and Voltaire to name a few. The wide distribution of the printing press, invented in Europe in 1450, made possible the rapid dispersion of knowledge and ideas which made the Enightenment possible.
In France, Enlightenment was based in the salons and culminated in the great Encyclopédie (1751–72) edited by Denis Diderot (1713–1784) with contributions by hundreds of intellectuals such as Voltaire (1694–1778), Rousseau (1712–1778) and Montesquieu (1689–1755). Some 25,000 copies of the 35 volume set were sold, half of them outside France.
The monument seen above is dedicated to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), a philosopher, writer, and composer of 18th-century Romanticism of French expression. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution as well as the overall development of modern political, sociological and educational thought. While in Paris, Rousseau became a close friend of French philosopher Diderot and, beginning with some articles on music in 1749, contributed numerous articles to Diderot and D’Alembert’s great Encyclopédie, the most famous of which was an article on political economy written in 1755. During the period of the French Revolution, Rousseau was the most popular of the intellectuals among members of the Jacobin Club.
Rousseau was interred as a national hero in the Panthéon in Paris, in 1794, 16 years after his death as seen above in the crypt below the Pantheon.
Voltaire is also buried here, with a statue of the great philosopher and writer.
The crypts cover the entire area of the Pantheon underground and seem to go on forever. Among those buried in its necropolis are Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Jean Moulin, Marie Sk?odowska-Curie, Louis Braille, Jean Jaurès and Soufflot, its architect.
Well, once again we have gone on a long journey. I plan future posts just on the French Revolution and The Age of Reason, which are both essential to understanding France as it is today.