“Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.”
These powerful ideas and immortal words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau would forever be an intrinsic part of French literature, ideals and evolution of human progress and civilisation. Like, Rousseau, France is forever indebted to many more great citizens whose contributions to the homeland and the world is invaluable. The Panthéon in the Latin quarter of Paris is the revered resting place of 73 great souls. The inscription on the entrance to the Pantheon reads, “AUX GRANDS HOMMES LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE” (“To great men, the grateful homeland”). It is indeed very hard to not be in awe of the spectacular architecture of the Panthéon, and even harder for any well-read person to not want to pay respect to these great French heroes. The Pantheon, like so many must see sights of Paris, has its own unique history and dollops of controversies.
The Panthéon resembles the Pantheon in Rome in the design of its façade and the spirit of Westminster Abbey in London as a famous mausoleum. It was constructed under the orders of Louis XV, as a replacement of the damaged Abbey of Sainte-Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. Louis had vowed to build this monument as a gratitude to God if he recovered from his illness. He did recover, and entrusted Abel-François Poisson, Marquis de Marigny with the fulfillment of his vow. Marigny in turn commissioned Jacques-GermainSoufflot to design the church. Construction began in 1757 and was completed in 1790 amidst the growing flames of the French revolution. It was known as the Sainte-Genevieve Church in its early days and Soufflot had planned to combine the gothic cathedral with classical principles, however its emerging role as a burial place resulted in the gothic windows being blocked. The most imposing aspect of this monument is its sheer size and the grandeur of its central dome that inspired in 1851 physicist Léon Foucault to demonstrate the rotation of the earth using a 67m Foucault pendulum.
The popular French orator and statesman Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeauin 1791 was the first of the national heroes to be interred. The Panthéon has flipped back and forth over the years from a church to a mausoleum but finally embraced its lasting identity as a sacred mausoleum for its dearest citizens. It is important to note however, that the great military leaders like Napoléon Bonaparte are honored in Les Invalides and the French monarchy lie in their eternal slumber in the BasiliqueRoyale de Saint-Denis. The crypt of the Panthéon is a subterranean chamber containing the remains of Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Jean Moulin, Louis Braille among other great minds. Alexander Dumas was the last to be buried in the Panthéon, 132 years after his death, with an elaborate ceremony, his coffin draped with a blue-velvet cloth inscribed with the Three Musketeer’s’ motto: “Un pour tous, tous pour un”.
On one of my many visits to the Panthéon as I stood with my bowed head in front of the tomb of Victor Hugo, I wondered why the women were so conspicuousin their absence from the Panthéon? With the exception of Marie Curie, the only woman to be interred there on her own merits, the Panthéon is literally a place of honour for its ‘Greatest men’.
After years of controversies, the decision of Hollande to induct in 2015 the brave female resistance fighters Germaine Tillion and Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz is a step in the right direction. However, there are miles to go before the Panthéon can truly embody the spirit of Égalité.
“One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”
― Marie Curie
Written by Subarna Ganguly