As Josephine Baker is about to become the first Black woman to enter the French Pantheon mausoleum, let’s talk about this majestic building, which dominates the Sainte-Geneviève hill in Paris and which is particularly dear to my heart since its shadow has sheltered my PhD and my love life.
I’ll be honest, I prefer the Pantheon from the outside, because its neo-classical architecture – so neat, so pure – delights me.
Even though the interior is breathtaking, punctuated with delicate frescoes and imposing colonnades, the exterior is of rare majesty. The imposing dome houses an invisible technical feat, as three cupolas coexist: the outer dome is made of stone – which is already a technical feat in itself – an intermediate and invisible dome supports the skylight dominating the building, and a coffered dome is visible from the inside.
On September 6, 1764, Louis XV laid the first stone of this monumental project directed by the architect Soufflot. Its primary purpose was to collect the shrine of Sainte-Geneviève (which is finally a few meters away, at the Saint-Etienne-du-Mont church).
This primary vocation will be thwarted, the monument being, following the torments and turning points of History, pantheon or church, and the mention on the pediment “To great men the Grateful Nation” being repeatedly deposited and then reapplied. In the same way, the cross which surmounts the lantern of the building was repeatedly removed and then put back to finally remain since 1873.
The building was completed in 1790, but the Revolution de-confessionalized it and it was after Mirabeau’s death in 1791 that the idea of bringing together the tombs of the great men of France in the Pantheon was discussed.
And there begins the part that appeals to me the least: the crypt of the Pantheon, which I find soulless (which is a shame).
This crypt, which brings together 80 great men and (a few) great women (there are only five of them, six with Josephine Baker), is the republican temple which symbolizes the writing of a modern national novel, a little bit too smooth and linear for my taste.
Mirroring a canonization praising a religious exemplarity, pantheonization has been promoting since the end of the 18th century the ideal of a republican and secular morality while in the process knitting a national novel based on a revolutionary freedom (hear, republican freedom).
The spirit of the Enlightenment – precursor of the revolutionary spirit – is significantly represented with the vaults of Voltaire, Rousseau, Condorcet and Cabanis.
The revolutionary spirit itself is widely present with Bevière (editor of the “Serment du Jeu de Paume”), l’abbé Grégoire, Generals Marceau and Ordener, jurists Portalis and Tronchet – to name but a few. Hugo, Zola and Dumas are the glorious sons of this republican spirit born from the French Revolution, and are praised as such.
More recently, the Resistance is noticeably celebrated, whether it is the general homage to the Righteous inscribed in the crypt or the vaults of Jean Moulin, Simone Veil, Germaine Tillion and Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz (and now Josephine Baker).
Whether it is the Constituent Assembly in 1791, Napoleon under the First Empire, deputies under the Third and Fourth Republics or even the President under the Fifth Republic, the choice of the pantheonization of a given personality reveals the republican – should I say the political – vision of the decision-making authority of the day.
Be it the Age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution, great writers or resistance fighters, we always speak of the sublime spirit of republican freedom. It’s very beautiful, but it’s also a bit reductive, as French History is not a novel, and certainly not a smooth and linear novel.
To clear the debate, let’s visit the upper level of the Pantheon:
November 5, 2021