Altar and Pendulum: Discourses in Glory at the Basilique-Cathedrale de Saint-Denis and the French Pantheon
SubjectCathedral Saint Denis; Pantheon; religion; secularism; architecture; symbolism; government; government
This project is an exploration of two spaces—the basilique-cathédrale de Saint-Denis and the French Panthéon, both in Paris, France—and the ways in which the architecture of each building presents a particular discourse of greatness prevalent in its time. In examining the physical expression of an idea of greatness, whether the Gothic cathedral of medieval Christian France represented by Saint Denis, or that of the secular temple of the nation born out of Enlightenment thought at the Pantheon, one encounters an implicit political theory foundational to the government of its time. Wrapped up in this theory are ideas about what greatness is, who may attain it, and how to go about achieving its heights. The buildings are, in effect, treatises presenting a particular notion of glory. During the Middle Ages the political realm was a subset of God’s greater kingdom. As such, at Saint Denis the medieval kings of France—who alone could aspire to true greatness—attained glory and with it, political power, through the divine. The Pantheon, in contrast, is a space born out of the Enlightenment. Within its walls we no longer look to God but to ourselves as the source of glory. St. Augustine’s Christian emperor disappears, and in his place the social contract of thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau comes to the fore. Along with the state, greatness itself is democratized. No longer do kings alone approach glory, confined to sacred spaces like Saint Denis. The world and all its enlightened inhabitants may join the chase for personal renown. Along these lines, the Pantheon ultimately presents a more hopeful vision of glory than the one found at Saint Denis. The very definition of greatness is opened up within its walls. Some argue that the absence of a pervasive narrative of glory, such as that tied to the divine right of kings at Saint Denis, renders the Pantheon a failed attempt to house the great individuals of our time. Indeed, since no one can presume to define greatness with any kind of finality, why is it even valuable? Despite such questions, the building’s changing role and varied inhabitants are presented here not as failures, but as an engaging invitation to ponder the question “What is greatness?” for ourselves. Where Saint Denis offers us definite answers, pointing to the pervasive Christian order of its time, the Pantheon gives us the freedom to interpret—an approach very much in tune with the enlightened age in which it was conceived.
Franklin and Marshall College Archives, Undergraduate Honors Thesis 2012
- F&M Theses Collection 
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