14 January 2017

Visiting six churches in Rome:
6, The Pantheon, or Santa Maria ad Martyres

The Pantheon has been a place of worship, first as a temple, and then as a church, for 2,000 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

If every visitor and pilgrim to Rome has a favourite church in the Eternal City, then I thought this week it was worth introducing six churches that are among my favourites in Rome and that I visited while I was there last week:

1, Santa Maria in Trastevere;

2, Santa Maria della Scala, also in Trastevere;

3, Chiesa Nuova, or the Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella;

4, San Giovanni in Laterano, or Saint John Lateran;

5, Santa Maria Maggiore or Saint Mary Major;

6, The Pantheon, or Santa Maria ad Martyres (Saint Mary and the Martyrs), often known Santa Maria Rotonda.

6, The Pantheon, or Santa Maria ad Martyres (Saint Mary and the Martyrs), often known Santa Maria Rotonda:

For many people, the Pantheon is a symbol of Rome itself (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Pantheon is Rome’s best-preserved ancient temple, and has been in continuous use, first as a temple, and then as a church, throughout its 2000-year history. This magnificent building has an awe-inspiring dome, and for many people it is a symbol of Rome itself.

Although the Pantheon is now a church, this is a former Roman temple, first built by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of his father-in-law Augustus (27 BC-14 AD). The present building was completed by the Emperor Hadrian (118-125 AD) and was dedicated ca 126 AD.

This is one of the best-preserved of all Ancient Roman buildings, and it has been in continuous use throughout its history.

The building is circular with a portico of large granite Corinthian columns (eight in the first rank and two groups of four behind) under a pediment. A rectangular vestibule links the porch to the rotunda, which is under a coffered concrete dome, with an oculus or central opening to the sky.

Light from the oculus moves around the Pantheon in a reverse sundial effect (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Now, 2,000 years after it was first built, the dome of the Pantheon remains the world’s largest dome not built of reinforced concrete. The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43.3 metres, so the whole interior would fit exactly within a cube. The dimensions make more sense when expressed in ancient Roman units of measurement: the dome spans 150 Roman feet and the the oculus is 30 Roman feet in diameter.

The interior of the dome was possibly intended to symbolise the arched vault of the heavens. The oculus at the dome’s apex and the entry door are the only natural sources of light in the interior. Throughout the day, the light from the oculus moves around this space in a reverse sundial effect. The oculus also serves as a cooling and ventilation method. During storms, a drainage system below the floor handles the rain that falls through the oculus.

Brick arches embedded in the structure of the wall act as internal buttresses, distributing the weight of the dome.

The oculus and the entry door are the only natural sources of light in the interior of the Pantheon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The name of the Pantheon is derived from the Ancient Greek Pantheion (Πάνθειον), either because the statues of so many gods were once placed around this building, or because the dome resembles the heavens. Another explanation that is now questioned says the original temple was dedicated to all the gods.

The inscription on the front of the temple which reads: M-Agrippa-L-F-Cos-Tertium-Fecit, M[arcus] Agrippa L[ucii] f[ilius] co[n]s[ul] tertium fecit ‘Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time.’

Inside the Pantheon, which has been used used as a church since 609 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

However, the first Augustan Pantheon built by Agrippa was completely destroyed by fire, except for the façade, in the year 80 AD. Domitian rebuilt the Pantheon, but it was burnt again in 110 AD. The present building probably dates from 114, four years after the temple was destroyed by that second fire.

In 202, the building was repaired by the joint emperors Septimius Severus and his son Caracalla.

Since the seventh century, the Pantheon has been used as a church dedicated to Saint Mary and the Martyrs, but known informally as Santa Maria Rotonda. In 609, the Byzantine Emperor Phocas gave the building to Pope Boniface IV, who converted it into a church dedicated to Saint Mary and the Martyrs It is said 28 cartloads of relics of martyrs were removed from the catacombs and placed in a porphyry basin beneath the high altar.

The conversion of the temple into a church may have saved the building from being abandoned and falling into ruin. Yet, much fine external marble has been removed over the centuries, and capitals from some of the pilasters are in the British Museum in London.

During the Papal exile in Avignon, the Pantheon was used as a fortress and a poultry market, but it became a church once again when the Popes returned to Rome.

The painter Raphael was buried in the Pantheon when he died in 1520 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

At his own request, the painter Raphael was buried in the Pantheon when he died in 1520. The inscription on his sarcophagus of Raphael says it holds his ossa et cineres or ‘bones and ashes.’ He had lived for many years with his model and lover, La Firnarina, but he turned her away from his deathbed and she was kept away from his burial. His fiancée, Maria Bibbiena, a niece of his patron, Cardinal Dovizi di Bibbiena, is buried to the right of his sarcophagus – she died before they could marry.

In the early 17th century, Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) removed the bronze ceiling of the portico. Most of the bronze was used to make bombards for the fortification of Castel Sant’Angelo, and it is also said that the bronze was used by Bernini in his baldacchino or canopy above the high altar in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Pope Urban VIII also replaced the mediaeval campanile with twin towers or turrets, ridiculed as ‘the ass’s ears’ and removed the late 19th century.

The present high altars and the apses were commissioned by Pope Clement XI (1700–1721) and designed by Alessandro Specchi. On the apse above the high altar is a seventh century Byzantine icon of the Virgin and Child, given by the Emperor Phocas to Pope Boniface IV in 609.

The choir, which was added in 1840, was designed by Luigi Poletti.

The marble interior has largely survived despite extensive restorations, and the marble floor, restored in 1873, preserves the original Roman design.

Along with Raphael, those buried here include painters, composers and architects, as well as two kings of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I, and King Umberto’s wife, Queen Margherita, and their tombs have become shrines for Italy's sad and dwindling number of royalists.

Although the Pantheon is owned by the Italian state, it continues to be used as a Catholic church, Mass is said here on Sundays and feast days, and weddings take place here from time to time.

The Fontana del Pantheon in the Piazza della Rotonda in front of the Pantheon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In the Piazza della Rotonda in front of the Pantheon, the Fontana del Pantheon (was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII. It was designed by Giacomo Della Porta in 1575 and sculpted in marble by Leonardo Sormani. In 1711, Pope Clement XI modified the fountain be modified, with Filippo Barigioni designing a new layout, including a new stone-made basin.

The Macuteo obelisk, which dates from the reign of Ramses II in Egypt, is set in the centre on a plinth with four dolphins decorating the base.

In 1886, the original marble figures were removed, and replaced with copies by Luigi Amici. Today, the originals are in the Museum of Rome.

Series concluded.

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