Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Panthéon or La Pauvre St. Geneviève

Herewith a fascinating quote about a landmark in Paris:

The construction of the new classical church of St Geneviève in Paris was vowed by Louis XV if he recovered from his illness. He recovered and then found the money by the use of state lotteries. Soufflot the architect lived in the full glare of the Enlightenment, and needed nothing Gothic or mysterious. He was a man of his century and wanted daylight and rationality, and paid small regard either to the history of France or to the customs of Catholic worship. The legend of St Geneviève was not important to him. But the plans ran into difficulty. The construction met trouble with foundations and was not complete when the Revolution broke out. The church was not yet consecrated when the National Assembly on 4 April 1791 decided that it be called Panthéon and dedicated to those who deserved well of their country; Mirabeau the first. Voltaire’s remains were translated thither by a theoretically solemn but actually carnival-like procession on 10 July of the same year; Rousseau’s remains on 11 October 1794. The architect de Quincy was ordered to obliterate religious ornaments from the church. He removed the furniture and the bell-tower, and replaced the glittering cross and adoring angels over the portico with a France bestowing a crown of virtue, while Liberty with lions crushed despotism; and an inscription, ‘To our great men the Fatherland does homage.’ He removed the cross on the dome (it was only a temporary cross until they carved a statue of St Geneviève) and put a huge statue of the goddess Fame, nine meters high, blowing an enormous trumpet.

In 1806 Napoleon, who thought established churches were like vaccination to protect the people from sorcery and fanaticism, re-established Catholic worship and the name of St Geneviève and added (1812) a golden cross upon the dome. But the church was not reopened until 1822. The portico had its third sculpture, a shining cross with rays, and lost the inscription ‘To our great men…’.

In 1830, another revolution. St Geneviève was out again, so were altar and candlesticks and confessional-boxes. The portico got its fourth decoration, the Fatherland distributing crowns offered to it by Liberty while History stands by recording—crowns to soldiers on the right, and on the left to civilians, including Voltaire and Rousseau, but also including Archbishop Fénelon. The inscription ‘To our great men…’ came back, and the cross on the dome was replaced by a flag.

In 1851-2 Louis Napoleon transformed the Panthéon into the Church of St Geneviève, gave it national status, removed the inscription ‘To our great men…’ and put a cross (only a wooden cross) on the dome.

During the Commune of 1871 Communards sawed off the arms of the wooden cross and hung a red flag from the upright pole.

In July 1873 the cross returned—this time a heavy stone cross four meters high.

Victor Hugo died on 22 May 1885. St Geneviève went out again, and Victor Hugo was buried in the revived Panthéon, and all the altars and confessional-boxes disappeared; but on the dome the cross was left, and stands there to this day. It is a great monument of French classical art, killed icy and naked by the troubles of French history.
The quote comes from The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, by Owen Chadwick, p. 158-159. I found this book thanks to a post on Siris. Adding any comment to this tour de force would be a sacrilege. The image is from Wikipedia Commons here.

1 comment:

  1. Goodness, what an interesting history. I will have to make a point to visit St. Geneviève when I am next in Paris...


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