The Panthéon as a Revolutionary Space

Over the course of the French Revolution, revolutionaries have attempted to garner support for their cause through symbolism. As the traditional sources of authority had been undermined by the revolution, causing anxiety as to what would fill this vacuum, it was vital for symbols to express revolutionary values and give legitimacy to the new revolutionary government. "The experience of the Revolution showed for the first time that politics was shaped by culture, that a new political authority required a new "master fiction", and, most important, that the members of a society could invent culture and politics for themselves." The Panthéon serves as an example of this trend. In its glorification of the revolution's chosen 'heroes', it provided the public with models to emulate. "The same mental outlook that reveled in symbolic, temple-like spaces consecrated to high ideals also believed that public honors and commemorative monuments were powerful spurs to exemplary behavior." Through the inclusion and exclusion of individuals into the circle of the Panthéon, particular revolutionary ideals could be given support. Additionally, the choice to use this particular space is also of significance, as this choice invariably reflected upon the ideals that the revolutionaries wished to project. In addition, by taking the place of the church, it visibly symbolized the substitution of secular for religious virtues, placing a divine virtue in the Revolution as well as its champions and martyrs. The Panthéon thus serves as a space in which the creation of a new revolutionary culture from the ashes of the Old Regime took place.

The Panthéon was originally Sainte-Geneviève, a church sponsored by Louis XV and XVI and thought to be the crowning glory of religious architecture by its architect, Soufflot. For many, the Panthéon represented "the summation of decades of thought and effort directed at the reform of ecclesiastical architecture." It incorporated a symmetrical Greek cross plan borrowed from the Italian Renaissance as well as an interior that "was - and still is - dominated by columns." In addition, the building had low windows to give the interior a light, airy atmosphere. This atmosphere was aided through the appropriation of Gothic vaulting techniques.

The original Sainte-Geneviève drew heavily from Enlightenment thought, applying its concepts to architecture. The 'severe' Neoclassicism of the church stands in direct contrast with the Baroque style that preceded it. Classical architecture was seen as more 'natural' than its Baroque counterpart, which "offended reason and simply did not look good." For Soufflot, it was necessary for the church to be built on 'rational' foundations. However, Sainte-Geneviève also incorporated the light and verticality of the Gothic style, creating a church that had ethereal qualities as well as rationalized ones. By drawing on the Classical and Gothic traditions, Soufflot had hoped to create a church that was "to unite in one of the most beautiful forms the lightness of Gothic construction with the purity and magnificence of Greek architecture." As it was first built, Sainte-Geneviève represented a rational spirituality that was connected to the institutions of the monarchy and the official church.

In April of 1791, shortly after the death of the statesman Mirabeau, the National Assembly decided to convert Sainte-Geneviève into "a pantheon to receive the bodies of the great men of the nation," France's version of Westminster Abbey. Appropriated by the revolution, the newly dubbed Panthéon underwent a symbolic transformation from a sacred center of Old Regime society to a sacred center of the society that the revolutionaries were trying to create. "The transformation in 1791 of the Eglise Sainte-Geneviève into a national pantheon, destined to house the remains of the great men of France, involved a . . . use of expressive character for a numinous space." As the resting place of the chosen heroes of the Revolution such as Mirabeau (pantheonized in 1791), Voltaire (1791), Marat (1794), and Rousseau (1794), the Panthéon was used to evoke positive sentiments towards the developing 'religion' of the revolution. The reassignment of this space to suit the new needs of the revolution reveals the ways in which revolutionaries sought to replace traditional authorities with newer ones, adopting symbolic systems of the Old Regime to suit their needs.

The Panthéon was used as a literal temple to the individuals and values that the revolutionary regime wished to value and encourage in its citizens. Its monuments to Enlightenment figures help aid in the 'creation' of the Enlightenment by revolutionaries attempting to find a basis for their new government and a model for the behavior of citizens. Revolutionaries "constructed a continuity that was primarily a process of justification and a search for paternity. Finding the "origins" of the event in the ideas of the century, which was Mornet's program - would be a way of repeating, without knowing it, the actions of the persons involved in the event itself and of holding as established historically a filiation that was proclaimed ideologically." While pre-Enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes were rejected, both Voltaire and Rousseau were pantheonized, symbolically establishing them as the forerunners of the Revolution. By using inclusion in the Panthéon to create a 'narrative' that fills the void left by the ideologies of the Old Regime, the revolutionary movements could gain greater justification.

Voltaire, the first of the philosophes to be pantheonized, was accorded a sacred quality in the procession to the Panthéon. In her discussion on the pantheonization of Voltaire, Mona Ozouf notes the manner in which this ceremony drew upon religious models, stressing the ethereal qualities which had been granted to Voltaire. "The final scene, the removal of the veil . . . the burning of incense, and even the careful arrangement of busts and banners on the altar - mattered far less than the "translation" of the sacred objects." Thus the philosophe and the Enlightenment that he was a part of are exalted as holy, thereby sanctifying the Revolution which was a 'child' of the Enlightenment. Voltaire's monument in the Panthéon reinforces his status as precursor to the revolution, as it links his values with those of the new society. Voltaire is 'cannonized' in the Panthéon as a man who "demanded the rights of man against the servitude of feudalism [and] enlarged the human spirit and taught it that it must be free." The Revolutionary perspective is sanctified and justified through the example of Voltaire, who takes a hallowed position as a 'father of the revolution.'

Rousseau's pantheonization and sanctification in 1794, near the end of the Reign of Terror, also served to justify the revolution, providing a sacred historical figure for the movement to identify itself with. In the pantheonization of Rousseau, the philosophe most associated with the sans-culottes and Montagnards who controlled the Terror, Rousseau and his sanctity were invoked to validate the actions of those who had been involved in the terror. Rousseau's animosity towards private property and his stress on equality over liberty made him the ideal 'revolutionary saint' for the Montagnards and their sans-culotte supporters. Embraced by Robespierre as "one man [who], by the elevation of his soul and by the grandeur of his character, showed himself worthy of the ministry as preceptor of humankind" , Rousseau could act as a symbol to assert the radical perspective and justify the violence of the Terror. By elevating him through pantheonization and other means, the Montagnards are able to vindicate their positions by hearkening back to their distinguished and almost holy predecessor.

The arrangement of the Panthéon also played an important role in its adoption as a semi-sacred temple of fame. Locating revolutionaries in an enclosed space rather than an 'Elysium' was an issue of great significance to the revolutionary government. "The dichotomy between a stark architectural setting for death and a peaceful natural cadre entered into the very conception of the Panthéon." While attempts were made to place gardens around the building, these plans never came to fruition. Thus, it was criticized as "[hiding] the great men of France away from the eyes of the multitude in somber underground vaults." Its Neoclassical architecture, symbolizing the ancient model which revolutionaries aspired to, made the Panthéon well suited to its role as symbol of Revolutionary virtue. The ends of contemplation and emulation were furthered by the shutting off of the windows in the original building. Under the guidance of Quatremère de Quincy, "the side windows of the church were walled up so as to create a more sober atmosphere deemed appropriate for the building's new destination." This darker, more atmosphere lent a sense of mystery to the building that allowed visitors to reflect more carefully on the virtue of the individuals who had been pantheonized.

The way in which the pantheonized figures were presented also accords them a semi-sacred status, sanctifying them as well as the Revolution that chose them as its forerunners and champions. Significantly, the Panthéon housed the bodies of its heroes as well as monuments to them. Thus, like medieval churches, which housed the remains of saints in reliquaries, the Panthéon accorded a sacred character to the remains of the pantheonized 'saints of the Revolution'. The 'irrational' assigning of sacred qualities to the bodies of the deceased instilled a sense of sanctity upon the physical remains, causing the visitor to wish to emulate these individuals by practicing Revolutionary virtue.

The Panthéon played a significant role in filling the ideological void left by the Old Regime, using symbols to sanctify the values that the revolutionary regime wished to pursue. As was the case in other efforts to use symbols to promote the developing values, the appropriation and arrangement of heroic figures in the Panthéon helped revolutionaries to create a new system of symbols to replace the morality of the Old Regime with their own emerging values. Used to symbolically lend credence to the revolutionary movements, the Panthéon arranged its environment in such a way as to make its heroes, and, by extension, the revolution that they fostered, sacred. By appropriating and converting this church into a temple in which the ideals of the revolution could be presented for emulation, the revolutionaries reshaped an old sacred space into one that glorified the values that they wished to create.

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