The Pantheon, a Mausoleum of Great Men – and Great Women

A hero of the French Resistance who fought against the Nazis, Missak Manouchian is the 83rd person, after Josephine Baker, to be inducted into the Pantheon. After many years in the shadows, the “temple of the French Republic” has attracted renewed interest in recent decades.
© Derek Bacon/France-Amérique

On February 21, the ashes of Missak Manouchian and his wife Mélinée will be transferred to the Pantheon, the emblematic Parisian monument in the heart of the Latin Quarter, named after the temples the Greeks and Romans dedicated to all their gods (pan, “all,” and theos, “god,” in Greek). Exactly 80 years to the day after his execution, the Armenian-born freedom fighter will be honored for his heroic commitment to battling Nazi occupiers during World War II. In France, everyone remembers “L’Affiche rouge,” Louis Aragon’s poem set to music and sung by Léo Ferré, celebrating the struggle of Manouchian and his communist comrades-in-arms.

The Pantheon’s construction was launched by Louis XV and was completed between 1764 and 1790. But before being a necropolis consecrating French figures, it was used as a church dedicated to Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris. The building’s location was not chosen randomly; Clovis, King of the Franks, had already made this mystical Gallo-Roman site a sanctuary, and he and his wife, the future Saint Clotilde, were buried there. For a long time, the building’s fate was uncertain. Although he had allowed it to become a place of Catholic worship once again, Napoleon continued to use the crypt to house the remains of the Empire’s dignitaries. A total of 42 people, many of them from the military, were interred here.

It wasn’t until Victor Hugo’s funeral in 1885 that the Pantheon was finally given the function it still has today. After being abandoned for several decades, the ritual of “pantheonization” was revived during the presidency of François Mitterrand (1981-1995). However, the inscription on the building’s pediment – Aux grands hommes la patrie reconnaissante (“To great men, a grateful nation”) – continues to reflect an era in which women were kept out of the public sphere. Since then, fortunately, France has also started celebrating female personalities. Before Mélinée Manouchian, American-born singer and dancer Josephine Baker, who was above all a major Resistance fighter, was inducted into the Pantheon in 2021.

© Derek Bacon/France-Amérique

Not Enough Women

Since 1791, seven women and seventy-six men have entered the “temple of the French Republic.” Male literary giants make up a significant proportion of the contingent. Victor Hugo lies not far from Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile Zola, André Malraux, Alexandre Dumas, and Maurice Genevoix. Alongside them are scientists such as physicist Paul Langevin, explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, Louis Braille, inventor of the writing system that bears his name, and two couples: physicists Pierre and Marie Curie, and chemists Marcellin and Sophie Berthelot (who was the first woman to be buried in the Pantheon, in 1907).

Political heavyweights include Victor Schœlcher, Félix Eboué, Jean Jaurès, Jean Monnet and Simone Veil, the Holocaust survivor and Minister of Health who decriminalized abortion in France in 1975. Recent years have also seen the arrival of many leading figures from World War II, the Resistance, and the Free France movement, including Pierre Brossolette, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, General de Gaulle’s niece, who was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Ravensbrück, Germaine Tillion, and Jean Zay, honored a few decades after René Cassin and Jean Moulin. It should be noted that the honored person should theoretically be a French national. However, this is not the case for Missak Manouchian, nor was it for four men – three Italians and one Dutchman – interred under Napoleon.

Intrinsically linked to defining moments in national history, panthéonisation – a French term first recorded in dictionaries in the early 19th century – is a Gallic passion. Only the Portuguese have a genuine equivalent, the Panteão Nacional in Lisbon, where just 12 personalities are buried. In the United States, only a few former presidents are celebrated in such a way. The faces of four of them – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt – have been carved in stone on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. The Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C., whose architecture is inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, only pays tribute to the country’s third president. Meanwhile, the nearby Lincoln Memorial upholds the memory of the leader who abolished slavery in 1863.

In Russia, only Lenin enjoys such treatment. Built in 1930 on Moscow’s Red Square, his mausoleum continues to attract those nostalgic for the Soviet era. Further west, in the Danube Valley, the Walhalla memorial was built in the early 19th century near Regensburg to honor the bright lights of German civilization. Bach, Beethoven, Goethe, Kant, Bismarck, and Konrad Adenauer, among others, have their place here. However, the monument is not a mausoleum and contains neither bodies nor ashes. Instead, the glorified figures are represented by sculptures.

© Derek Bacon/France-Amérique

Who’s Next?

London’s Westminster Abbey is probably the institution that comes closest to the Parisian Pantheon. The only difference is that, aside from such eminent figures as William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, David Livingstone, Laurence Olivier, and Stephen Hawking, most of the illustrious residents of the edifice on the banks of the Thames are kings, queens, and notable aristocrats.

And after former justice minister and death penalty abolitionist, Robert Badinter, who died on February 9 and whose entry into the Pantheon was decided by President Emmanuel Macron, who might the next arrivals be? In a similar fashion to the Nobel Prize for Literature, a long list of rumored names regularly does the rounds. They include philosophers Blaise Pascal and René Descartes, writers Molière, Jules Verne, George Sand, and Arthur Rimbaud, musician Hector Berlioz, Resistance fighter Lucie Aubrac, Abbé Pierre, who founded the solidarity movement Emmaüs, and statesman Pierre Mendès France. Olympe de Gouges, who drafted the 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, is also often mentioned.

In the run-up to the Olympics, which will be held in the French capital from July 26 to August 11, some are calling for the pantheonization of Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Games. A strange approach, it could be said. An outspoken racist and anti-Semite, the late baron was a staunch supporter of Hitler’s regime at the time of the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Since the entry of three emblematic figures of the Resistance, Josephine Baker and Missak and Mélinée Manouchian, all three of foreign heritage, the celebration of such a character would be troubling, to say the least.