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An homage to pagan gods redeemed

MASTERWORKS | The art and legacy of the “most famous building in the whole world”

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An homage to pagan gods redeemed
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In between sipping espresso in the Piazza Navona and tossing coins over their shoulders into Trevi Fountain, visitors to Rome are ushered into the Pantheon, a temple dedicated to the pagan gods by Emperor Hadrian in A.D. 128.

From the outside, the Pantheon’s triangular pediment over a colonnaded entrance called a portico looks like a standard Graeco-Roman temple, but an inscription added in 1632 by Pope Urban VIII boasts: PANTHEON AEDIFICIUM TOT TERRARUM ORBRE CELEBERRIMUM—“Pantheon, the most famous building in the whole world.”

In this space, “Masterworks,” we’ll be taking a look at important, often famous, works of visual art and architecture—and asking some questions: Why does this work matter? How did this creator influence his or her genre? How does this work burnish—or tarnish—the glory of the Creator?

As for the Pantheon, just entering overwhelms the senses. The floor is a patchwork of multicolored marble tiles. The interior has seven niches carved into curved walls flanked by columns. But the dominant feature is the domed and coffered ceiling. The dome is 143 feet off the ground, and it’s pierced by a 27-foot-wide oculus, the building’s only light source. The shaft of sunlight cast onto the floor becomes an artistic feature in its own right.

The interior of the Pantheon with its domed ceiling.

The interior of the Pantheon with its domed ceiling. Scaliger/Getty Images

The Pantheon evokes awe, yes, but it also offers visitors a glimpse of the deep heritage of Western civilization. The building we experience today is remarkably unchanged since antiquity. This is primarily because it was converted into a church early in its post-Roman history. When Rome was sacked, images of pagan gods disappeared and the colossal statues of Augustus and Agrippa vanished from the Pantheon’s entrance. In 609, the Byzantine Emperor Phocas entrusted the building to Pope Boniface IV.

The Pantheon’s history and beauty disguise the impressive feats of engineering that went into building it. The dome, spanning 143 feet, is larger than that of St. Peter’s Basilica across town. It may look like stone, but the roof is made from Rome’s most enduring engineering invention: concrete. Nineteen hundred years after its construction, the Pantheon still holds the record as the world’s largest single piece of unreinforced concrete.

The walls of the building are 20 feet thick, built in a circle to carry the weight of the roof. The dome itself is a perfect hemisphere with a diameter (143 feet), the same distance as its height. And if, at 143 feet off the ground, the hemispherical dome were completed, the bottom edge of the full sphere would touch the temple’s floor. The countless earthquakes that ruined other Roman buildings, such as the Colosseum, testify to the genius behind the Pantheon’s engineering.

The interior of the Pantheon with its multicolored marble floors.

The interior of the Pantheon with its multicolored marble floors. Flavijus/Getty Images

Countless buildings derive their architectural heritage from the Pantheon, copying its triangular portico and dome combination. Brunelleschi used the Pantheon as his inspiration for the 138-foot dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, completed in 1436 and known colloquially as the “Duomo.” The Pantheon has also inspired numerous other Christian churches worldwide. Government buildings like the U.S. Capitol and various American state capitol buildings are also architectural descendants of the Pantheon. On university campuses, buildings like the Library Rotunda at the University of Virginia reflect the Pantheon’s enduring legacy.

With echoes of the Pantheon resounding through the architectural history of Western civilization, Pope Urban VIII’s 400-year-old boast still rings true: The Pantheon truly is the most famous building in the whole world.

—Steven L. Jones has a Ph.D. in classics from the University of Texas at Austin. He serves as a teaching pastor at Kingsland Baptist Church in Katy, Texas, and as a lecturer at Rice University in Houston.


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