The Pantheon: Basilica of Saint Mary of the Martyrs

Each year in the war season, Romans would assemble in low, fertile land near the Tiber to practice with sword and shield the arts sacred to Mars.  Here in the Campus Martius, the “Field of Mars”, smoke would rise from sacrifice on the altar (a bar-b-que) while men danced the movements of battle and sang the memory of deeds and heroes.  Most of that world has vanished from the Earth, leaving us little but imagination to construct knowledge of what we are.  There is, however, one building of the Campus Martius that remains to us, a remarkable building credited to Emperor Hadrian, the Pantheon (circa 122), “Temple to all Gods”.

We cannot be certain if the name “Pantheon” is accurate, as we are uncertain of the statuary, pictuary, and sacred objects the temple might have contained.  We are left with only the façade inscription of an earlier, burned away temple sponsored by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, and evidence of the building itself.1.

In evidence, you might like to know that the Pantheon’s dome was the world’s largest dome until recent centuries, that it is of brick once faced with marble (removed to build churches and villas), that its huge double doors (24’h) are the earliest of the type, that even now scholars are puzzled at its construction, being of various, increasingly thin and light concrete aggregate, unreinforced.  And this remarkable detail, following the imaginary outline of the roof’s interior dome, the building forms a perfect sphere.


Basilica of Saint Mary of the Martyrs with Giacomo Della Porta's Fountain

Basilica of Saint Mary of the Martyrs, the Pantheon with Giacomo Della Porta’s Fountain, Rome, 1575. credit: M. Curtis


Recently, I had opportunity to visit the Pantheon, now the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Martyrs, that is, the “Virgin Mary and all the Martyrs”, and here there is much worthy of mention.  We have been told that Pope Boniface IV (550–615) reinterred beneath the great porphyry altar 28 full cartloads of martyr bones from the Catacombs.  We know that the revolution-mad French stripped Saint Genevieve Church of its burials, art, and sacred objects renaming the raped church, the Panthéon, a pagan place for the worship of rational man.  Here, in France’s Panthéon are the tombs of Marat, Rousseau, and others who inspired the French to murder.  Motivated by the French, yet with honorable reference, Italians interred the famous of their country, artists, architects, and kings (Victor Emmanuel II, and others).  Raphael’s tomb too is here; its inscription reads, “Nature feared that Raphael / might outdo her while alive, / Now that Raphael has died, / Nature fears she too might die.2.

As if fated to happen, I visited the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Martyrs on 21 April, dies Natalis, the anniversary of the founding of Rome, Rome’s birthday.  On this day at noon, 1,900 years-ago, the sun would arc through the dome’s oculus to shine itself upon the emperor entering with entourage through the great bronze doors, and here the emperor would join with other gods of Rome.  These days on 21 April there is neither emperor nor memory, only many thousands of the curious looking about and snapping selfies.  Times change, and now the sun’s ray shines full on the door some little while after noon, causing the curious to shuffle, anticipate, and release the collective, “ahhhoooh” when the sun performs as expected.

At the ahhh, I looked up from praying my rosary for the martyrs of old, the martyrs of our day, and martyrs to come, to witness this curiosity we make of God’s creation, and was delighted, as who would not be.  Presently I returned to the fifth decade, “Death Upon the Cross”, and concluded with the Hebrew, Amen, “It is written … let it be so”, then stood to gaze, to wonder and to wander while considering what has passed away and what is yet to come.


Basilica of Saint Mary of the Martyrs, interior, deis Natalis

The Pantheon, Basilica of Saint Mary of the Martyrs, dies Natalis, 2023. credit: M. Curtis


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When you visit, you will notice a similarity between the Pantheon and Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia.  A classically educated Francophile and rationalist, the great Jefferson intended a temple to the Power of Reason and the Authority of Nature, two philosophical errors that might have been mediated by theology with the good effect of avoiding genocides of this last century.  When inside, likely you will notice the many Classively framed niches and chapels, each honoring a person, saint, or Bible passage.  One such (first to the left), the Chapel of Saint Joseph in the Holy Land, is reserved for a fraternity of artists, the Pontifical Academy of Fine Arts whose members have included Antonio da Sangallo (the younger), Cortona, Algardi, Zuccari, Bernini and others who to this day care for the Basilica and worship at its altars.


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1. The inscription upon the frieze reads, M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIVM·FECIT, “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made this building when consul for the third time.”


Featured Image: The Pantheon (Basilica of Saint Mary of the Martyrs), Apollodorus of Damascus, architect. credit: Borisov


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