I’d only seen it from the outside before and, knowing nothing about the building, had always assumed that it was some sort of national assembly.
Originally the Panthéon was intended to be a church, and Jacques-Germain Soufflot was commissioned to design it in 1755. The foundations were laid in 1758, and the building was finished in 1789, coinciding with the start of the French Revolution. Thus, the Revolutionary government ordered it to be changed from a church to a monument to great Frenchmen.
Since then it has been through a political and religious tug-of-war, twice being changed back to a church, only to again become a monument to French intellectuals.
Not knowing any of this when I walked in, I was surprised at the mesh of different atmospheres – the building looks like a church. It is made in the shape of a Greek cross and the dome is reminiscent of St Paul’s in London or St Peter’s in Rome. But many of the paintings on the walls (separated from the central area by a wall of columns) are not religious, and neither are the statues. And, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, it felt like I was walking through an ancient, cavernous library.
It was only when I went down into the dim, echoing crypt that I learned of the history of the building, and when I returned to the main level I tried to look at all of the changes that were made as the building changed identities – many of the windows have been blocked in, so it’s darker than many churches of this style, and though many of the main paintings are not religious, the smaller ones above them show angels and saints, and are done in a completely different style with a lot of gold-leaf.
I was so caught up in the paintings that I didn’t actually see the pendulum – one of the things for which the Panthéon is known – until I was on my way out.
In the centre of the building, hanging from the dome, is a gold pendulum. It swings back and forth over a table that represents a 24-hour clock face and tells the time by swinging over the hour. The original was built in 1851 by Léon Foucault who demonstrated the rotation of the Earth with the experiment. Basically, because the pendulum isn’t touching the Earth, it continually swings back and forth on the same line, but because the Earth (hence the Panthéon and the clock-table) are rotating under it by 11 degrees an hour, the pendulum appears to be moving as the day progresses. Very cool.
(Btw – the Pendulum picture is from Somewhere Else as I forgot to bring my camera today.)
The Panthéon is one the monuments that has left me awestruck by its size. Maybe it’s because I haven’t looked at many buildings like this for some time, but I found myself staring at the ceiling, unable to comprehend how high it was, or the size of the pillars which line the walls. Even the model with a cross-section taken out was twice my height! Although it isn’t as well-known as the Louvre, the Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower, I think this is a must-see for anyone visiting Paris.