“When you see the Pantheon for the first time, your mind caves in. You walk through the gigantic doorway and your attention is sucked upward to a circle of sky. A filtering haze floats inside; a column of light strikes through the oculus and leans against the floor. The space is both intimate and explosive: your humanity is not diminished in the least, and yet simultaneously the Pantheon forces you to pay attention to the fact that the world includes things far greater than yourself.” Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome
No description is adequate for the Pantheon. It is a first-person experience. Without a special lens, it is difficult to get a photo of even one half of the interior because of its scale. The Romans were able to build it, and many other structures, because
of their particular type of concrete. (See my earlier post.) Built in about 125 C.E. (A.D.) it replaced an earlier temple that burned in 80 C.E. It is thought to have been a temple to all of the gods, and was later the first Roman temple converted into a church. In 609 it became Sancta Maria ad Martyres, as rededicated by Pope Boniface IV, and remains an active church today. As I walked around and looked up, my awe was tinged with a spiritual hue.
“It is the form of the Pantheon that elicits one’s amazement: that huge dome, opened to at the top by an oculus which seems not merely to show but to admit the sky, is a landmark in the history of construction and, one might add, of architectural metaphor….This is truly Roman architecture.”
“No modern architect would dare to attempt another Pantheon using the same structural principles – nobody would insure it. But the Pantheon has stood for nearly two thousand years and shows no prospect of collapse.” Robert Hughes, Rome
Hughes says the dome design relies entirely on mass and is “the world’s largest in unreinforced concrete.” The dome has a diameter of 43 meters (143 feet), and the distance from the floor to the oculus is the same – visually, about the length of half a football field. The oculus – a round opening at the top of the dome – is the only source of natural light in the building. When I looked up, it appeared to be about 5 feet across, but in reality measures about 28 feet, the length of a double-decker bus.
The entry doors are 21 feet high. The outside granite columns are 39 feet tall and weigh in at 60 tons each. The inside columns are more than 32 feet tall and each has a heft of 25 tons. You get the idea: it is HUGE.
And yet … in this massive edifice at the foot of a saint I found a small, vulnerable lamb with an uncertain look on its face. A tiny symbol of vulnerability inside a giant metaphor of strength.