The Secular Pantheon of Paris

August 23, 2012

We all know new religions love to take over the turf of those that came before them, or with whom they compete. Christian churches are constantly built over pagan sacred sites, where they replace nature spirits, the genius loci of place, with saints, who earn a halo by concentrating their focus on a god of light. Impressive architecture replaces humble sites, where folk previously reflect upon the great mystery out of which they arise and back to which they return at the end of this life (see Sacred Sites – the Cathedral).

The Pantheon of Paris

But in Paris, at the Pantheon, we find a new way of transforming sacred sites. This momentous occasion occurs in the 18th century, when a place with immense religious significance has its mythologising force shifted from a miraculous saint to the secular values of the great French philosophers and writers.

Pantheon interior.

According to legend, when the Huns approached Paris in 451 and many citizens prepared to flee, St Genevieve prayed that Hannibal would not invade the great city. The story is famous, of course, because he didn’t – but why this is so is more likely a matter of more mundane possibilities than this lady of faith’s prayers (for example Hannibal apparently had more important things to do, like tackling the Visigoths in Acquitane, and may also have heard rumours of a cholera epidemic in the region). Regardless, her courage and power of vision saved countless lives (most of those who would have fled would not have survived), along with protecting the cultural stability and structural integrity of the city.

Honoured with sainthood, Genevieve remained integral to the pride of the city, such that Louis XV promised (in 1744) to rebuild the by-then ruined church that had been built on this site if his health recovered. When he did, he remained true to his word and the foundations were laid in 1758. Completion in 1789 complicated matters, however, and the victorious French Revolutionaries ordered that it be transformed from a church to a mausoleum for the interment of great Frenchmen. The Enlightenment turn against traditional religion meant that even as consistently revered a spiritual heroine as Genevieve could not be placed above the arts and sciences of this world.

The evolution of the building was not without controversy, however, as it reverted to being a church twice in the following years, only to go back (finally?) to being a place of homage to the secular spirit of French intellectual and cultural life. Official texts on the subject proclaim that it now embodies a permanent victory for the Enlightenment, which strikes me as a touch hopeful given the vagaries of history and the long-term resilience of religious fanaticism.

Regardless, for now it remains a significant site of respect for those whose thoughts and writings are committed to the betterment of the human lot on human terms. The most highly placed of those interred here are Rousseau and Voltaire, sharing the opening section of the cryptorium. They are both commanding writers and thinkers, but Rousseau is my man. On his coffin, placed on the right as you enter the silent, cool vaults beneath ground level of the building, his epitaph reads: Ici repose l’homme de la nature et de la vérité.

Rousseau’s Tomb, Pantheon

What a great phrase to be remembered by. A man of nature and of truth, who saw the sickness and self-deceit of civilization and had the courage to speak it. The presentation places both authors in the context of the groundswell that led towards the Enlightenment, the popularisation of the idea that humanity needs to understand the earth on its own terms, not beholden to ancient scriptures and powerful conventions, and that it must create noble virtues around which new traditions of social justice for all could be built. Sure, it mostly fails, but then so does religion, and at least the attempt brings a little more of a sense of responsibility to political affairs. And, with Rousseau, it also entails seeing through this humanism and extending new respect to the organic reality that always underpins human concerns, the natural world. No wonder Michel Serres paid homage to the great man when he asked that Rousseau’s ‘social contract’ should be updated to include a ‘natural contract’ for the 21st century.

Among the many other highlights at the Pantheon, I noted that Hugo, Dumas and Zola share one crypt together! Now that is a roll call of authorial stardom. Also, physicist Léon Foucault’s pendulum, which was originally fitted in 1851 to demonstrate the rotation of the earth, swings in graceful arcs from the main, central dome, some 67 metres high.

But it is the idea that human understanding and faith in our senses, aligned at its best with love of and respect for the rest of nature, can replace veneration of religious faith, that places the Pantheon at the centre of all that is great about Paris; and even of the west itself.


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