For me, a trip to Paris wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to the Panthéon. Patterned after the original, much older Pantheon in Rome, the one in Paris was originally called the Église Sainte-Geneviève as it was a church built to honor Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. Though construction on the church began in 1758, the architect died before it could be completed and it was his protégé who saw the project to fruition in 1790. Against the backdrop of the French Revolution, France’s newly formed National Assembly ordered the church to be converted to a mausoleum, laying to rest its first two prestigious members the following year.
Over the next century, the building twice reverted back to use for religious purposes before being officially declared a secular necropolis with the death of Victor Hugo in 1885. Professing a belief in God but no affinity for religion, he was interred in the Pantheon following a funeral procession of two million mourners.
The Panthéon is now the final resting place for many of France’s national heroes, but I had interest in only one – Victor Hugo, a true literary genius. If you’re asking yourself right now who in heaven’s name this guy is, he wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Toilers of the Sea, and his most famous work, Les Misérables, my favorite book of all time. But before we visited the tombs of the crypt beneath the Pantheon, we first walked through the stunning interior of the main ground-floor building.
Expecting the mausoleum to be merely a burial site, I wasn’t prepared for the grandeur of the paintings, arches, and statues. It certainly felt like it was once a church.
Paintings larger than those in the Louvre covered nearly every wall, depicting scenes of famous battles in French history, the coronation of kings, and the death of martyrs and saints.
One statue I particularly liked was La Vengeur. It was created in 1908 by sculptor Ernest Dubois in honor of the French ship, La Vengeur du Peuple (Avenger of the People), that was sunk in 1794. In the midst of the French Revolution, La Vengeur was tasked with protecting a convoy transporting food sent from America. Attacked by the British, the ship was cut off from her sister ships and valiantly attempted to defend herself as the fighting raged for hours. With holes in her hull and her mast cut down by bullets, La Vengeur finally listed and sank, though many of her crew were gallantly saved by British sailors in what became known as the Glorious First of June.
Even more stunning was a piece from 1913 by Alphonse-Camille Terroir called À Diderot et aux encyclopédistes (To Diderot and the Encyclopedists). The piece remembers Diderot, the famous French philosopher and writer who contributed heavily to France’s Encyclopédie, one of the world’s first non-religious encyclopedias in the 18th century.
In the center of the Panthéon’s main dome, we discovered a large gold ball slowly swinging back and forth above a dial. Named after the French scientist Leon Foucault, this “Foucault pendulum” was originally installed in 1851 as an experiment to prove that the planet rotates on its axis. Swaying from a 67-meter long cable attached to the ceiling of the main dome, the ball remains in a fixed plane of movement as it rotates 11° an hour clockwise around the dial, completing its circuit in 32.7 hours. It’s pretty trippy. The gold ball was redesigned in 1995 and is heavier than the original, now weighing in at 47 kg, but the piece itself remains largely unchanged from Foucault’s original.
Just as I was starting to think we’d never find the tombs buried beneath the Panthéon, we found a set of stairs leading us underground. The air was cool in the quiet, echoing chambers of the crypt. Without a main map at the entrance and smaller maps throughout, it’s unlikely we ever would have found a specific tomb in the complex maze of rooms.
Near the entrance, we easily found the tomb of Voltaire – writer, poet, and philosopher. Since I’ve never read any of his works and Travis wasn’t particularly fond of Candide, we stayed for but a moment.
We followed several sets of stairs, curved around spiraling corners, and then descended further into the crypt.
Still no Victor Hugo.
Where was my hero? This unrivaled, inimitable French author par excellence?
Briefly distracted by a tomb guarded by a tall black cat statue, presumably somehow related to the Egyptian goddess Bastet, I wondered what statues and decorations might adorn Hugo’s tomb.
We hadn’t known that Marie Curie was buried in the crypt, so we stopped to pay our respects. The first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first female professor at the University of Paris, she was also the first woman to be interred at the Panthéon based on her own achievements (the one female buried there before her was laid to rest with her husband because of his notoriety).
At long last we reached the main room where we would find Victor Hugo’s tomb. We were so close!
And this was it. The moment. I peaked my head into a long cylindrical room holding several tombs and finally was within touching distance of the greatest writer of all time. I couldn’t believe folks were walking past without stopping – I had just assumed everyone visiting the Panthéon had come to see him. Did they not know how amazing he was?!
Now, I’m not gonna lie here… I was a bit disappointed. Where were the photos, the flowers, the wreathes? The paintings, autographed copies of his books on display, notes left by adoring fans?
Considering how he lived his life and on what he placed value, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Upon his death in 1885, his entire will consisted of five simple lines:
Je donne cinquante mille francs aux pauvres. Je veux être enterré dans leur corbillard.
Je refuse l’oraison de toutes les Églises. Je demande une prière à toutes les âmes.
Je crois en Dieu.
I leave 50,000 francs to the poor. I want to be buried in their hearse.
I refuse [funeral] orations of all churches. I beg a prayer to all souls.
I believe in God.
Victor Hugo was a simple man who believed in social justice and equality, not riches or notoriety. For me, even though his tomb was rather unextraordinary, I was happy to be able to pay my respects to someone whose literary legacy I’ve admired for so long. Now if only his genius were spread by proximity….
- Tickets cost €8.50 per adult.
- Free admission for youth under age 18, EU citizens aged 18-25, disabled people, and jobseekers with certificate.
- Some of the more famous folks interred at the Pantheon are Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Alexandre Dumas, Marie Curie, Rousseau, and Louis Braille.
- Official site of the Panthéon