Illustrations, Diagrams, Photographs of the Pantheon in Rome

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Once a Roman Temple, Now a Christian Church

Illustration of the Pantheon in Rome, During the Roman Empire
Illustration of the Pantheon in Rome, During the Roman Empire Illustration of the Pantheon in Rome, During the Roman Empire. Source: Public Domain

The original Pantheon of Rome was built between 27 & 25 B.C.E., under Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. It was dedicated to 12 gods of heaven and focused on Augustus' cult. Romans believed that Romulus ascended to heaven from this spot. Agrippa's structure was destroyed in 80 and what we see is a reconstruction from 118 under emperor Hadrian. Today a Christian church, the Pantheon is the best preserved of all ancient Roman buildings. The focus of the Pantheon in Rome is above: the great eye, or oculus.

Today a Christian church, the Pantheon is the best preserved of all ancient Roman buildings and has been in near-continuous use since Hadrian’s reconstruction. From a distance the Pantheon is not as awe-inspiring as other ancient monuments — the dome appears low, not much higher than surrounding buildings. Inside, the Pantheon is among the most impressive in existence. Its inscription, M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIUM·FECIT, means: Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, built this.

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Origin of the Pantheon in Rome

Model of the Pantheon in Rome, as it Appeared during the Roman Empire
Model of the Pantheon in Rome, as it Appeared during the Roman Empire Model of the Pantheon in Rome, as it Appeared during the Roman Empire. Source: Public Domain

The original Pantheon of Rome was built between 27 & 25 BCE, under the consulship of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. It was dedicated to 12 gods of heaven and focused on Augustus’ cult and Romans believed that Romulus ascended to heaven from this spot. Agrippa’s structure, which was rectangular, was destroyed in 80 CE and what we see today is a reconstruction done in 118 CE under the leadership of emperor Hadrian, who even restored the original inscription on the facade.

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Architecture of the Pantheon

Diagram of the Pantheon in Rome, Showing the Interior Architecture
Diagram of the Pantheon in Rome, Showing the Interior Architecture Diagram of the Pantheon in Rome, Showing the Interior Architecture. Source: Public Domain

The identity of the architect behind the Pantheon is unknown, but most scholars attribute it to Apollodorus of Damascus. The parts of Hadrian’s Pantheon are a columned porch (eight massive granite Corinthian columns in front, two groups of four behind), an intermediate area of brick, and finally the monumental dome. The Pantheon’s dome is the largest surviving dome from antiquity; it was also the largest dome in the world until Brunelleschi’s dome on the Duomo of Florence was completed in 1436.

04
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The Pantheon and Roman Religion

Illustration of the Pantheon in Rome, as the Interior Would have Looked Like during the Roman Empire
Illustration of the Pantheon in Rome, Interior During the Roman Empire Illustration of the Pantheon in Rome, as the Interior Would have Looked Like during the Roman Empire. Source: Public Domain

Hadrian seems to have intended his rebuilt Pantheon to be a sort of ecumenical temple where people could worship any and all gods they wished, not just local Roman gods. This would have been keeping with Hadrian’s character — a widely traveled emperor, Hadrian admired Greek culture and respected other religions. During his reign, an increasing number of Roman subjects either didn’t worship Roman gods or worshiped them under other names, so this move made good political sense, too.

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Interior Space of the Pantheon

Illustration of the Interior of the Pantheon in Rome, c. 1911
Illustration of the Interior of the Pantheon in Rome, c. 1911 Illustration of the Interior of the Pantheon in Rome, c. 1911. Source: Public Domain

The Pantheon has been called a “perfect” space because the diameter of the rotunda is equal to that of its height (43m, 142ft). The purpose of this space was to suggest geometrical perfection and symmetry in the context of a perfect universe. The interior space could fit perfectly either in a cube or in a sphere. The massive interior room is designed to symbolize the heavens; the oculus or Great Eye in the room is designed to symbolize the light- and life-giving sun.

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Hadrian on the Pantheon in Rome

Illustration of the Inside of the Pantheon in Rome, as a Christian Church
Illustration of the Inside of the Pantheon in Rome, as a Christian Church Illustration of the Inside of the Pantheon in Rome, as a Christian Church. Source: Public Domain

Hadrian wrote about the Pantheon he had reconstructed: “My intentions had been that this sanctuary of All Gods should reproduce the likeness of the terrestrial globe and of the stellar sphere...The cupola...revealed the sky through a great hole at the center, showing alternately dark and blue. This temple, both open and mysteriously enclosed, was conceived as a solar quadrant. The hours would make their round on that caisson ceiling so carefully polished by Greek artisans; the disk of daylight would rest suspended there like a shield of gold; rain would form its clear pool on the pavement below, prayers would rise like smoke toward that void where we place the gods.”

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Oculus of the Pantheon

Photograph of the Ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome, Showing Light from the Oculus
Photograph of the Ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome, Showing Light from the Oculus Photograph of the Ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome, Showing Light from the Oculus.

The central point of the Pantheon is far above visitors’ heads: the great eye, or oculus, in the room. It looks small, but it’s 27ft across and the source of all light in the building, serving as a symbol of the sun as the source of all light on Earth. Rain that comes through collects in a drain in the center of the floor; the stone and moisture keep the interior cool through the summer. Every year, on June 21st, the rays of the sun at the summer equinox shines from the oculus through the front door.

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Construction of the Pantheon

Photograph of the Ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome, Showing Light Coming Through the Oculus
Photograph of the Ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome Photograph of the Ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome, Showing Light Coming Through the Oculus.

How the dome has been able to bear its own weight has been a matter of great debate — if such a structure were built today with unreinforced concrete, it would quickly collapse. The Pantheon, though, has stood for centuries. No agreed-upon answers to this mystery exist, but speculation includes both an unknown formulation for the concrete as well as spending a lot of time tamping the wet concrete to eliminate air bubbles.

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Changes in the Pantheon

Photograph of the Pantheon in Rome, Showing the Bell Towers Designed by Bernini
Photograph of the Pantheon in Rome, Showing the Bell Towers Designed by Bernini Photograph of the Pantheon in Rome, Showing the Bell Towers Designed by Bernini. Source: Public Domain

Some lament the architectural incoherence in the Pantheon. We see, for example, a Greek-style colonnade on the front with a Roman-style interior space. What we see, however, is not how the Pantheon was originally constructed. One of the most significant changes was the addition of two bell towers by Bernini. Called “asses’ ears” by Romans, they were removed in 1883. In a further act of vandalism, Pope Urban VIII had the bronze ceiling of the portico melted down for St. Peter’s portico.

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Photograph of the Pantheon in Rome

Photograph of the Pantheon in Rome, with the Bell Towers Removed
With the Bell Towers Removed Photograph of the Pantheon in Rome, with the Bell Towers Removed. Source: Public Domain

According to Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code, round churches became forbidden and cruciform churches the imposed standard. This was never true and the existence of the Pantheon as a round church is hard evidence of Brown’s error. The idea that round churches were forbidden seems to have been developed because several Templar churches were round — but only because they got the idea from the domed structure built by Constantine over the Tome of Christ in Jerusalem.

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The Pantheon in Rome as a Christian Church

Illustration of the Pantheon in Rome, c. 1911, Exterior
Illustration of the Pantheon in Rome, c. 1911, Exterior Illustration of the Pantheon in Rome, c. 1911, Exterior. Source: Public Domain

One reason why the Pantheon has survived in such remarkable shape while other structures are gone may be the fact that Pope Boniface IVI consecrated it as a church dedicated to Mary and the Martyr Saints in 609. This is the official name which it continues to bear today and masses are still celebrated here. The Pantheon has also been used as a tomb: among those buried here are the painter Raphael, the first two kings, and first queen of Italy. Monarchists maintain a vigil at these latter tombs.

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Influence of the Pantheon in Rome on Western Architecture

Photograph of the Pantheon in Rome Today, Exterior
Photograph of the Pantheon in Rome Today, Exterior Photograph of the Pantheon in Rome Today, Exterior.

As one of the best-surviving structures from ancient Rome, the influence of the Pantheon on modern architecture almost cannot be underestimated. Architects from all over Europe and America from the Renaissance through the 19th century studied it and incorporated what they learned into their own work. Echoes of the Pantheon can be found in numerous public structures: libraries, universities, Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda, and more.

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Pantheon in Rome and Western Religion

Photograph of the Pantheon in Rome Today, Interior
Photograph of the Pantheon in Rome Today, Interior Photograph of the Pantheon in Rome Today, Interior. Source: Rolf Süßbrich, Wikipedia

It’s possible that the Pantheon has had an impact on Western religion: the Pantheon appears to be the first temple built with general public access in mind. Temples of the ancient world were generally limited only to specific priests; the public may have taken part in religious rituals in some fashion, but mostly as observers and outside the temple. The Pantheon, however, existed for all the people — a feature which is now standard for houses of worship in all religions of the West.