Resistance heroes enter the Pantheon

As four new ‘great men and women’ are honoured, we look at the curious history of the Paris Pantheon

AS FOUR Resistance heroes are inducted into the Pantheon – including two women – we look at the history of this famous building and some less well-known facts.

A ceremony was held at the landmark domed building in the Latin Quarter yesterday which saw four coffins containing earth from the heroes’ graves carried through the streets into the building for interment because their families had not wanted their bodies to be disturbed.

President Hollande gave a speech in which he compared the bravery of the fighters with the spirit of January 11 when people marched in opposition to the murders at Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Casher store.

He said: "Faced with the occupation, with submission, they gave the same response. They said 'no', immediately, firmly, clearly."

Interment in the Pantheon is a special honour for the greatest heroes of the Republic – above the building is inscribed ‘To it’s great men; a grateful fatherland’.

There are now 74 men buried there – but the inclusion of Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion, alongside Jean Zay and Pierre Brossolette, has now doubled the number of women so honoured.

In fact Nobel prize-winner Marie Curie was the only one previously included on her own merits - scientist Sophie Berthelot was included as wife of her better-known husband, chemist Marcellin Berthelot.

Mrs Berthelot died the same day as her husband and was interred with him “in homage to her conjugal virtues”, the couple having expressed the wish not be separated in death any more than they had been in life.

What is the history behind the Pantheon?

The building was originally planned as a church and was built in the 18th century to house relics of patron saint of Paris Saint Genevieve (which are now in a nearby church), who died in the city in 512. It is so-called because its façade and dome are inspired by the Pantheon, meaning temple to ‘all the gods’, in Rome, and because it honours a ‘pantheon’ of great citizens.

The original reason for its construction was that King Louis XV had promised to establish a church to Saint Genevieve if he survived a serious illness he was suffering. He gave orders for a new church on the site of the old Abbey of Saint Genevieve, which was in ruins.

Architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot took inspiration from ancient Rome, as was fashionable at the time.

However the building was only just being completed when the Revolution broke out.

In 1791 the first French national assembly decided to dedicate it as a ‘Pantheon of great men’, taking inspiration from Westminster Abbey in the UK.

During the political upheavals of the 19th century it saw changes of use including being reinstated as the church of Saint Genevieve (though for a time continuing to receive coffins of great men in its crypt) or, on the contrary, being dedicated as a secular ‘Temple of Humanity’.

Finally, in 1881 a law was adopted renaming the building the Pantheon and dedicating it again as a place to honour ‘great citizens’ – Victor Hugo, who died in 1885, was the first.

Did you know?

• President Hollande chose May 27 for the interment of the Resistance fighters because it was decreed last year to be National Resistance Day. It is the day when the National Council of the Resistance was created by the Free French, organised by Jean Moulin (who is among those honoured in the building).

• Four people have had their remains removed due to problems with their reputation in later years.

The first was French revolutionary and writer Mirabeau, whose death in 1791 was one of the reasons for the national assembly deciding on the use of the building as a place to honour great men.

Mirabeau’s body was placed in the Pantheon the same year, but only remained until 1794, when new details of his life emerged on the discovery of the armoire de fer (iron wardrobe), a secret hiding place for correspondence in the private apartments of King Louis XV. It was found that he had been in contact with the King, giving advice and hoping to be a minister in a constitutional monarchy.

The others who were removed were radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat, politician and lawyer Louis-Michel Le Peletier and a general, Auguste Picot de Dampierre.

In 1795, to avoid further problems it was decided to wait at least 10 years after someone’s death before interring them in the Pantheon.

• The building, at 82m high (and also situated on the top of a hill called La Montagne Sainte-Genevieve) was the highest in Paris until the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889.

• There is still plenty of room in its crypt – in total there are around 300 places, of which only 75 are currently occupied.

• Famous people interred in it include Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, Louis Braille and Jean Jaurès.

• About 700,000 people visit it each year.

• Curiously for a secular building, the Pantheon still has a cross on the top – it has a long history.

Originally the plan was to have a statue of Saint Genevieve on the top, but a cross was installed provisionally. In succeeding years it was then replaced with a statue of a woman blowing a trumpet (1791), a bronze cross (1822), a flag (1830), a golden cross (1851), a red flag under the revolutionary Paris Commune and finally the current stone cross in 1873 – which was left in place when, in 1885 Victor Hugo was interred.

Photo: M. Romero Schmidtke