How to get into a pantheon

Originally published August 14, 2004, The National Post

Essay and photography by Ian Garrick Mason

There's no denying it: Becoming part of a pantheon is much easier now than it once was. This summer's Olympic Games, for example, are at this very moment promoting people into the pantheon of sports, based solely on their abilities to run about, swim, ride bicycles or perform other prosaic activities. Chuck a hammer farther than some other people can, and you're in. It wasn't like this in ancient times. Back then, a candidate would have to do something quite extraordinary - springing full-grown and fully-armed from one's father's head, as Athena did - in order to be accepted. At the very least one had to be immortal. But they really do let anyone in nowadays.

So how did the word "pantheon" - which originally referred to the set of immortal gods worshiped by a society - end up as shorthand for a collection of contemporary sports heroes, or indeed of rock musicians, movie stars, physicists and writers?

Partly, argues a recently released collection of essays on the evolution of pantheons - Pantheons: Transformations of a Monumental Idea - by starting out as the name of a building. The Pantheon in Rome - built originally in 27 BC, destroyed by fire a century later, and rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian in AD 125 - was the first temple ever to be dedicated to all the gods. But why were the Romans the first? As Edmund Thomas, an architectural historian, explains in his essay, the best the Greeks had done was to build shrines to 12 gods - a dodekatheion, as they called it. But the identities of the 12 shifted over time and from place to place; a different collection of deities were worshipped at local festivals than at the Olympic festivals in which one hundred Greek cities took part. To be sure, a "pantheon" of all Greek gods did exist - just as did pantheons of Sumerian, Norse, and Fijian gods - but the Greeks didn't commemorate it. When the word "pantheon" appeared at all in their literature, it was used to refer to the planets and stars.

The Pantheon in Rome was thus an innovation which "blurred the original meaning of these cults" and was "'all things to all men' at a time of rapid religious diversification," writes Thomas. The Pantheon also marked a conscious effort to tie the gods to the city itself, built as it was on the site of the deification of Romulus, the legendary founder (with his brother Remus) of the city of Rome.

But the Greco-Roman gods were ultimately to take their leave, and in the early 7th century the building was given by the Byzantine emperor Phocas to Pope Boniface IV, who named it Santa Maria ad Martyres - a house of worship dedicated not to "the gods," but to the Christian saints.

For more than 900 years, its purpose changed little - until Raphael died in 1520. This master painter of the Renaissance asked in his will to be buried in the church of Santa Maria della Rotonda (the other name for Santa Maria ad Martyres), a church of little fame and frequent floodings. But as historian Susanna Pasquali points out, Raphael thought of it not as a mere church but as the Pantheon, and his burial there not only reinvigorated the building's original identity, but modified it: The Pantheon would now commemorate a man.

Soon, more than one man. Father Desiderio, a prestigious Cistercian and the canon of Santa Maria della Rotonda, housed relics in the church and subsequently founded the Confraternity of Saint Joseph of the Holy Land, a group of artists who had been working on renovations of both the Vatican and Santa Maria della Rotonda - "a confraternity of chosen, outstanding, men who ... should be able to obtain the respect of all Romans and foreigners who came to see and delight in said temple," as the founding statute put it. Soon enough - and Pasquali believes at least possibly because of Raphael's example - some of these artists asked to be buried in the Pantheon. Their wishes were granted, plaques were standardized to match Raphael's, and thus emerged "the modern cult of the memory of artists inside the Pantheon."

This was, in a sense, a strikingly modern way of looking at a pantheon: as a growing collection of illustrious members of an artistic calling, whether self-selected or chosen by their peers. But it was also temporary, for the growing power of nationalism was ultimately to appropriate the idea of a pantheon, and to apply it to the glory of the nation instead. No longer would the word be associated exclusively with a building in Rome.

As in so many other areas, England and France competed with and imitated each other. England's Westminster Abbey, chock-a-block with memorials to the great and good, came in the 18th century to be regarded "as the public space in which the notion of the exemplary national citizen was articulated through the erection of monuments," writes Matthew Craske, an art historian, in his essay on the abbey. In turn, the establishment of Paris's own Panthéon - built before the Revolution as the beautiful church of Sainte-Geneviève - was inspired partly by Westminster. As the Marquis de Villette said to the Jacobin Club in 1790, "If the English have gathered together their great men at Westminster, why should we hesitate to place Voltaire's coffin in the most beautiful of our temples, in the new Sainte-Geneviève, facing Descartes' mausoleum..." Whether permanently or temporarily, the Panthéon would go on to house the remains not only of Voltaire, but also of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Comte de Mirabeau, Jean-Paul Marat, Émile Zola, Jean Moulin, Marie Curie, René Descartes, Louis Braille and Jacques-Germain Soufflot, its architect.

Yet England was not content with Westminster. The wars sparked by the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon invigorated English nationalism, and between 1790 and 1820, the cathedral of St. Paul's was filled with statues and memorials to prominent generals and admirals, a veritable "selective cult of officer service and heroism," as Holger Hoock, a Cambridge historian, puts it. Such a focus on war and temporal fame could not help clashing with the cathedral's main purpose, which was to celebrate God and inculcate Christian ideals such as humility, but with sculptures carefully toned down to depict heroic rather than violent death, young Christian men found much there to idolize.

The wars eventually ended. During the more or less peaceful century from 1815 to 1914, the military and imperial narratives depicted by memorials in St. Paul's became obscured and scrambled by the addition of scientists, artists, scholars and statesmen to the national pantheon. Indeed, the whole nationalist project of pantheon creation soon became fraught with controversy, particularly in France. What men could make, after all, men could unmake, and fights broke out over who should be added - and who removed. Princeton's Simon Baker points out that, for example, the body of Mirabeau, a comparatively moderate leader of the Revolution, was spirited out of the Panthéon to make room for that of the inflammatory Marat - and that Marat was evicted in turn, "his coffin propped open in the streets like a market barrow, while his remains were scattered in the gutter." Marat had in fact been prophetic on this point; on the day following the legal ratification of the Panthéon, he declared: "I shall not dwell here on the ridiculous spectacle of an assembly of vile and inept low-lifes setting themselves up as judges of immortality. How can they be so stupid as to believe that the present generation, much less the future races of mankind, will subscribe to their pronouncements?"

For a while, though, people carried on trying to pick the nation's immortals. A revolutionary and neo-classical impulse eventually gave way to a literary impulse, which saw greats like Victor Hugo interred there in 1885. Yet even literature's day passed. By the 1920s, writes Baker, intellectuals and artists looked back with disdain and embarrassment on the Panthéon-celebrated generation that had contributed so destructively to the Dreyfus Affair and the First World War. Surrealist and Dadaist writers decided to undermine the whole notion of "recognition," by issuing Les Premières et les Dernières, for example, a list of good and bad writers intentionally graded in an arbitrary fashion. Second highest of les Dernières was the celebrated writer Anatole France, whom the Surrealists saw as over-estimated and over-mourned at his death. "The dead should not be permitted to be so much stronger than the living. We must learn to forget the past, to live our own lives in our own times," said Marcel Duchamp.

But by then the idea of the pantheon had already undergone much change. With the arrival and slow expansion of democratic suffrage and the rise of a literate and confident middle class, public opinion had begun to supplant elite opinion in the building of reputations. The popular press lent notoriety to scoundrels and fame to heroes, and both sides of human nature were objects of fascination to the public. Madame Tussaud's wax works - which had started touring in the early 1800s - appealed to this catholic taste. Uta Kornmeier, an art historian, argues that it is significant that Tussaud's sculptures were made not from "noble and lasting materials such as marble or bronze, but from the fragile and immensely illusionistic material that is wax" - a suitable substance for an age in which immortality was slowly being replaced by topicality.

So it remains today. Hollywood's "immortal" pantheon is as ephemeral as the celluloid preserving it - the concrete handprints outside Mann's Chinese Theatre are perhaps attempts to make some kind of permanent commemoration of great (or merely famous) actors and actresses. Transience is now the rule. Rock and roll, literature, motorcycle racing: for each endeavour, a pantheon - defined by fame, or victories, or earnings, or, for Olympic athletes, by medals and broken records.

But the impulse toward permanence is not entirely gone. Earlier this summer, fervent supporters of the recently deceased President Reagan proposed that his face should be put on the dime, replacing Franklin Delano Roosevelt's face - which would have been a version in miniature of the eviction of Mirabeau by Marat. And in France, another literary giant was added to the Panthéon in November, 2002: Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, a velvet drape over his coffin inscribed with the words: "All for one and one for all." There was a short but sharp controversy over his exhumation, however; his home town argued strenuously that Dumas would wish to stay buried in the place he was born - but the national government won the argument, and his remains were moved. Thus Duchamp was proved wrong: The dead are not stronger than the living, after all.

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