Panthéon, originally built as a church of St. Genevieve, is a national mausoleum for meritorious French citizens. It holds the remains of many distinguished people, among others Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Jean Paul Marat, Louis Braille and Marie Curie. It is also one of the first and finest examples of neoclassicism.
Commissioned by Louis XV as a votive offering for restoring him to health, the intended St. Genevieve church was designed by Jacques-Germain Soufflot and completed in 1790. However, the onset of French Revolution changed its destiny into the national mausoleum preserving the remains of great Frenchmen.
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 and her relics. He did recover, and entrusted Abel-François Poisson, marquis de Marigny with the fulfilment of his vow. In 1755, Marigny commissioned Jacques-Germain Soufflot to design the church, with construction beginning two years later.
The foundations were laid in 1758, but due to the economic problems in France at this time, work proceeded slowly. In 1780, Soufflot died and was replaced by his student, Jean-Baptiste Rondelet. The remodelled Abbey of St. Genevieve was finally completed in 1790, coinciding with the early stages of the French Revolution. Upon the death of the popular French orator and statesman Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau on 2 April 1791, the National Constituent Assembly, whose president had been Mirabeau, ordered that the building be changed from a church to a mausoleum for the interment of great Frenchmen, retaining Quatremère de Quincy to oversee the project. Mirabeau was the first person interred there, on 4 April 1791. Jean Guillaume Moitte created a pediment sculptural group The Fatherland crowning the heroic and civic virtues that was replaced upon the Bourbon Restoration with one by David d’Angers.
Twice since then it has reverted to being a church, only to again become a meeting house dedicated to the great intellectuals of France.
In 1851, physicist Léon Foucault demonstrated the rotation of the Earth by his experiment conducted in the Panthéon and constructing a 67 meter Foucault 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.
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, 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 late 2006, a ‘cultural guerrilla movement’ calling itself Untergunther completed a year-long project by which they covertly repaired the Panthéon’s antique clockworks.
In January 2007, President Jacques Chirac unveiled a plaque in the Panthéon to more than 2600 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 risking f their own lives.
Panthéon is an early example of neoclassicism, with its daring lines, Corinthian columns, the masterful triple dome, and its sheer massive size. However, the designer Jacques-Germain Soufflot wanted to combine Classical and Gothic characteristics. Yet when the church became the mausoleum, the large Gothic windows were blocked.
Panthéon is an early example of neoclassicism, with a façade modelled on the Pantheon in Rome, surmounted by a dome that owes some of its character to Bramante’s ‘Tempietto’. Designer Jacques-Germain Soufflot 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.
The overall design was that of a Greek cross with massive portico of Corinthian columns. Its ambitious lines called for a vast building 110 meters long by 84 meters wide, and 83 meters high. No less vast was its crypt. 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 cramps and covered with lead sheathing, rather than of carpentry construction, as was the common French practice of the period. Concealed flying buttresses pass the massive weight of the triple construction outwards to the portico columns.
From 1906 to 1922 the Panthéon was the site of Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture ‘The Thinker’.