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Rome: Pantheon

Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. Crossing a large threshold -the world's largest known piece of Lucullan black and red marble- the visitor entered the sanctuary itself. The interior of the Pantheon must have been more surprising than it is today. In the first place, the Pantheon was constructed between other buildings, and the visitor can not have known that he was about to enter a spacious vaulted room; in the second place, the contrast between the dark hall and the bright cult space -which is striking even today- must have been even more impressive in Antiquity, because the inner side of the dome was covered with gilded bronze. Since the conquests of Trajan in Dacia, this precious metal was in abundant supply. The gold must have reminded those who knew something about philosophy of the highest part of the earth's atmosphere, which was believed to consist of pure fire.

Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. So the visitor entered the circular sanctuary which the emperor Hadrian had rededicated to the all-divine, i.e., heaven. Inside the rotunda were seven apses in which -as was once proposed by Theodor Mommsen- must have stood statues of the seven planets that, according to the ancients, moved around the earth; there was also a statue of Julius Caesar, the dictator who had, after his death, been recognized as a celestial god. It is not recorded how the statues were arranged, but since the days of the Sicilian scientist Archimedes (287-212) it was customary to use a sequence based on revolution: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. If this sequence was also applied in the Pantheon, the statue of the Sun must have stood in the central apse, which can be seen on the next photo, to the left.
Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. On one side, the Sun had the three male planets: son Mars, father Jupiter, and grandfather Saturn; on the other side were Lady Venus, the androgynous Mercury, and Mrs. Moon. Saturn and the Moon were as far from the Sun as possible, in accordance with the ancient theory that they were the coldest planets. The favorable planets (Moon, Jupiter, Venus) and the unfavorable ones (Saturn, Mercury, Mars) constituted two equilateral triangles. In this way, the seven apses were a copy of the universe. The most striking aspect of the vaulted space, however, was the big "eye" (oculus) in the top of the vault. Its function in the cosmological design is described by the Athenian philosopher Plato, whose philosophical ideas were rapidly gaining popularity in the second century.
Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering.
The gods see many blessed sights in the inner heaven, and there are many ways to and fro, along which the blessed gods are passing, every one doing his own work; he may follow who will and can, for jealousy has no place in the celestial choir. But when they go to banquet and festival, then they move up to the top of the vault of heaven. [...] For the immortals, when they are at the end of their course, go forth and stand upon the outside of heaven, and the revolution of the spheres carries them round, and they behold the things beyond. But of the heaven which is above the heavens, what earthly poet ever did or ever will sing worthily?
[Plato, Phaedrus, 247a-c;
tr. B. Jowett]
Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. The point is that the gods do not only belong to our universe, but are also transcendental: they are beyond this world. This idea, which can for the first time be documented in the cult of Amun in ancient Egypt, was often combined with monotheism: the gods venerated by the Greeks and Romans were manifestations of the one, supreme being, the all-divine or Pantheon. (The photo shows the floor of the rotunda ...
Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. ... covered by white and Numidian yellow marble, purple porphyry and grey granite from Egypt.) The movement of one the seven planets could be seen in the Pantheon as it was described by Plato: the projection of the Sun on the gilded ceiling, "moving up to the top of the vault of heaven" in winter, when the Sun is low...
Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. ... and down in summer, when the Sun is high. In a sense, the Pantheon is a large planetarium. This is a special photo, taken on the longest day of the year, 21 June, at astronomical noon. As you see, the light falls exactly in front of the entrance. If you would have entered the temple in Antiquity, you would have been absolutely blinded by the light, which appeared to come from the statue of the Sun.
Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. This photo shows one of the apses in which the statues of the planets were standing. It is known from the Natural History (9.121) by Pliny the Elder that the statue of Venus was decorated with earrings containing pearls that had once belonged to queen Cleopatra.

The building was reckoned among Rome's greatest wonders (Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, 16.10.14: "a self-contained district under a high and lovely dome"), but is not often mentioned in our sources. We know that Hadrian held court in this temple (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 69.7.1) and that the emperor Constantius II visited it in 357, and that's about it.
Pantheon. Photo Jona Lendering. In 609, pope Boniface IV rededicated the Pantheon to S. Maria ad Martyres. Today, it is still in use as a church.


© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2007
Revision: 31 March 2007
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