Heritage of Humanity – the Pantheon

Table of Content

The Pantheon

The Roman Pantheon is the most preserved building in Rome despite all the additions and restorations to its original form. The original Pantheon was built in 27 BC by Marcus Agrippa after the conclusion of the Battle of Actium. The monolithic structure seen in Rome today, however, is no longer the original Pantheon from Agrippa’s time. The 27 BC Pantheon burned down in the historic fire of 80 AD and was completely reconstructed by Emeperor Hadrian in 125 AD with the present day structure. Hadrian, however, attributed the construction to the man behind the original Pantheon as attested to by the inscription on the portico Hadrian left on the building itself, “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, in his third consulate, made it.” (Ward-Perkins, 111). This is why instead of Hadrian, the true builder of the Pantheon, Agrippa is the one immortalized on the Pantheon’s edifice.

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The Pantheon came to be used for different purposes, attesting to the flexibility of its architectural design. Historians speculate that the Pantheon may have been initially used as a dedication to the Roman gods and goddesses worshipped by many at that time. It may also have served an astrological purpose which may have been the reason for the oculus or hole at the rooftop of the Pantheon. The structure continued to served as a church in 608, as a funerary afterwards, and as a place where the busts of artists not laid to rest in the Pantheon were placed (Howell, 34).

Undoubtedly, the Pantheon stands as a monument to the history of Rome. However, its contributions are not limited simply to its testament to the past of Rome. Even today, numerous artists and individuals study the building both to appreciate its beauty and to draw insights regarding the culture of those who built it. Study of the Pantheon has also allowed many individuals to draw fresh insight about the different symbolisms present in the Pantheon’s architectural design.

The well-renowned painter of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, Michelangelo, was one of the many people whose amazement and love for the arts were drawn forth by the Pantheon. He is known to have once described the building as having an “Angelic and not human design”, a design attributable to the competence and expertise of the ancient Romans (Lugli, 1). The Pantheon’s interior is one of the most concrete examples for the beauty and angelic appeal of the building.

The first and most conspicuous aspect of the Pantheon’s interior that invites its visitor to exclaim in wonder is not the walls or ceiling but rather the amount of space that welcomes all its guests to take a step inside. Roman architecture considered space to be something more than just a gap between two objects. Rather, space was considered as a concrete object, as something with volume, with equal weight as the human body. Space was something to be considered and factored in when planning and constructing buildings. This was most probably due to the Romans’ affinity for public gathering. Because Romans often had assemblies, space was an essential factor in creating the Pantheon. The Pantheon provides modern-day proof of the Roman architects need to place room and make space in the architectural designs of the buildings constructed at that time.

However, it must also be considered that the Pantheon was not simply built for the purpose of public assemblies. Many researchers believed that the Pantheon was built as a dedication to all the gods worshipped by the Romans at that time. This gives a new insight into the creation of a large space inside the Pantheon. The space in the building now also refers to the overwhelming vastness of the realm of the gods and the broadness of the divine nature. The space also points to the attribution of vastness as something favorable to the gods.

In the case of the Pantheon, Roman architects chose a round shape to serve as a boundary of the space within the interior of the Pantheon. The circular shape adds to a feeling that the Pantheon’s interior is indeed spacious. Creating a round wall indicates the continuity not only of divine power but also of life itself. Because of the spherical design, it is clear that the Pantheon was dedicated to the Roman gods – the planetary deities. The sphere or orb symbolizes not only the world but the entire universe.

The round wall contains many niches or naves as well. This creates an impression of the wall containing numerous chambers at different levels. These niches contain some of the most reputable men of the Western world including kings of Italy, popes, and famous painters such as Raphael. All niches as well as openings in the wall are framed by an arch of bricks which serve more than just beautification purposes. These arches add to the support of the wall above the openings and niches and were called relieving arches because of this feature. These arches only went so far as the wall and did not invade the Pantheon’s dome. Creating structural support through the use of relieving arches was very common with Roman architects during the time the Pantheon was built (Lugli, 30).

The fact that the arches reached only up to the dome might have indicated that the realm of man only reached to a certain level after which the realm of the divine continued. The arches were not the only aspects of the interior that were prominent only on the lower aspects of the Pantheon. In general, the lower part of the interior contained more complex designs and was even made from higher density aggregate than the higher part of the interior. Again, this shows the difference between the world of man and gods. As one progresses from the realm of man to the divine, there is more simplicity and less emphasis on physical, superficial aspects. There is less clutter in the gods arena.

The naves on the walls of the Pantheon originally might have referred to the planets. The Pantheon’s seven naves today hold seven figures. At the time of the construction of the Pantheon, there were only seven known planets. If the circular wall represented the universe, it is easily conceivable that the naves represented the planets.

The installation of the figures of great men inside the naves might have been indicative of the status acquired by these men. Through the greatness they were able to achieve within their lifetimes, they were deemed to have almost reached the greatness of the gods or to have earned the same respect as the gods. Placing the figures of these men within the Pantheon – a building dedicated to the gods – may also have referred to a dedication of the lives and works of these men to the same gods.

When considering the Pantheon as an astronomically-based architecture and when considering the representation of the then-known seven planets, the concentric rings located on the exterior surface of the dome should be mentioned. The total number of these rings was seven all-in-all. It may well be that the rings also signified the seven planets.

If the concentric rings at the exterior are the seven planets, then the oculus may well be the sun. The oculus is the hole at the top and center of the Pantheon’s dome and the only source of light for the interior. The oculus’ representation of the sun surrounded by the seven planets – the concentric rings in the exterior and the naves in the interior – may refer to the heliocentric view of the universe.

The oculus also speaks of how the gods look down on the lives of men. When light streams down through the hole, it allows light to be shed on the visitors as well as on the figures. It shows how guidance can come from the divine realm. But the immense height of the oculus from the floor of the interior also speaks of the distance of the gods from men. The pantheon shows to a great extent how Romans perceived the relationship between immortal deities and mortal man. The immensity of the interior of the Panthenon and the distance from the floor to the dome already intimates to its visitor the insignificance of one life compared to the entirety of the universe especially seen through the vantage point of a god.

The oculus is not only important in the fact that it is the only source of light of the Pantheon. Once light does stream through the hole, the way the light hits the interior is also very significant. There is a play of light and shadow owing to the structures within the lower parts of the interior and the marble used for the floors and columns. The interplay of light depicts the presence of both brightness and darkness in the world of man. This may refer to more spiritual concepts of good and evil or more practical highs and lows in a man’s existence. In any case, it strictly points to a present duality in nature.

The columns in the Pantheon’s interior are created with different types of marble. Those in the lower zone are of a material called giallo antico. This is a type of marble that is of a yellowish-orange color. Some of the other columns in the lower zone are made of marble with an off-white color streaked with reddish-purple hues, called pavonazzo. The walls and floor are covered with marble of white, green, and green-gray colors. Although it may seem to one who has not seen the Pantheon up close that these colors would clash and cause quite an unattractive display of shades, this is not the case in the Pantheon. In fact, it lends justice to the perhaps cliché but apt saying, “There is unity (perhaps even beauty) in diversity.”

The architects and engineers of the Pantheon were so skilled that even in the mixing of these hues; the Pantheon creates a sense of intricate beauty and intimate splendor. These add to the attraction of the Pantheon’s interior for visiting tourists and even for the locals. The colors are so well balanced that the interior creates a sense of energy and of unity despite the variation. The Pantheon lends this energy to its visitors, encapsulating them in its color-induced aura once they step inside the great structure’s walls.

Only the interior of the structure is made of marble. The exterior is made of brick. The Panthenon is one of the few structures that place an emphasis not on the exterior but on the interior. This emphasis is placed not only on infrastructures but on all aspects of life as well. It is better to have a beautiful and more meaningful interior as opposed to an extravagant exterior with an empty interior. The deeper and more profound things are not skin-deep, not superficial or shallow.

The protections of the interior from outside forces are sixty foot high Corinthian columns and large bronze double doors measuring twenty-four feet in height. These seem to send the message that only the brave may enter, only those who truly seek beauty can overcome the overwhelming magnitude of the external barriers. Although Corinthian columns are originally Greek in origin, these only truly developed with Roman practice.

Truly, the Pantheon is one of the greatest infrastructures to have been built during the Roman Empire. Its building has contributed much to the understanding of the lives of the ancient Romans and even to the architectural strategies employed at the time. Study of the design of the Pantheon has not only enriched understanding of architecture and interior design but also of beauty and art. Whether one visits the Panthenon as an academic or simply as an appreciator of beauty, one is sure to leave enriched.

Works Cited

Lugli, G. “The Pantheon and Adjacent Structures.” Rome: Giovanni Bardi Publisher, 1971

Howell, Peter. “Pantheons: Transformations of a Monumental Idea.” Apollo Magazine September 2005: 33-36

Ward-Perkins, J.B. “Roman Imperial Architecture.” New York: Penguin Books, 1985


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