Paris – The Pantheon And St. Genevieve

THE Pantheon, like the Madeleine, has had its vicissitudes. The new Madeleine, as we shall see, was begun by Napoleon as a splendid Temple of military glory and became a church; the new Panthéon was begun by Louis XV. as a splendid cathedral and became a Temple of Glory, not, however, military but civil. Louis XV., when he designed its erection on the site of the old church, intended it to be the church of St. Geneviève, whose tomb was its proudest possession ; when the Revolution altered all that, it was made secular and dedicated “aux grands hommes la patrie reconnaissante,” and the first grand homme to be buried there was Mirabeau (destined, however, not to remain a grand homme very long, as we shall see), and the next Voltaire. In 1806 Napoleon made it a church again; in 1830 the Revolutionaries again secularised it; in 1851 it was consecrated again, and in 1885 once more it became secular, to receive the body of Victor Hugo, and secular it has remained ; and considering every-thing, secular it is likely to be, for whatever of change and surprise the future holds for France, an excess of ecclesiastical ecstasy is hardly probable.

So much of Louis XV.’s idea remains, in spite of the perversion of his purpose, that scenes from the life of St. Geneviève are painted on the Panthéon’s walls and sculptured on its façade; while in its last sacred days the church was known again as St. Geneviève’s. Possibly there are old people in the neighbourhood who still call it that. I hope so.

The life of St. Geneviève as told in The Golden Legend is rather a series of facile miracles than a human document, as we say. She was born in the fifth century at Nanterre and early became a protégée of St. Germain, who vowed her to chastity and holiness, from which she never departed. Her calling, like that of her new companion on the canon, St. Joan, was that of shepherdess, and one of Puvis de Chavannes’ most charming frescoes in the Panthéon represents her as a shadowy slip of a girl kneeling to a crucifix while her sheep graze about her. I reproduce it opposite the next page. Her mother, who had, like most mothers, a desire that her daughter should marry and have children, once so far lost her temper as to strike Geneviève on the cheek; for which offence she became blind.

(A very comfortable corner of heaven is, one feels, the due of the mothers of saints.) She remained blind for a long time, until remembering that St. Germain had promised for her daughter miraculous gifts, she sent for Geneviève and was magnanimously cured. After the death of her parent, Geneviève moved to Paris, and there she lived with an old woman, dividing the neighbourhood into believers and unbelievers in her sanctity, as is ever the way with saints. Here the Devil persecuted and attacked her with much persistence and ingenuity, but wholly without effect.

During her long life she made Paris her principal home, and on more than one occasion saved it : hence her importance not only to the Parisians, who set her above St. Denis (whom she reverenced), but to this book. Her power of prayer was gigantic; she liter-ally prayed Attila the Hun out of his siege of Paris, and later, when Childeric was the besieger and Paris was starving, she brought victuals into the city by boat in a miraculous way : another scene chosen by Puvis de Chavannes in his Panthéon series. Childeric, however, conquered, in spite of Geneviève, but he treated her with respect and made it easy for her to approach Clovis and Clotilde and convert them to Christianity — hence the convent of St. Geneviève, which Clovis founded, remains of which are still to be seen by the church of St. Etienne-du-Mont, in the two streets named after those early Christians — the Rue Clovis and the Rue Clotilde. Christianity had been introduced into Paris by Saint Denis, Geneviève’s hero, in the third century; but then came a reaction and the new faith lost ground. It was St. Geneviève’s conversion of Clovis that re-established it on a much firmer basis, for he made it the national religion.

” This holy maid,” says Caxton, ” did great penance in tormenting her body all her life, and became lean for to give good example. For sith she was of the age of fifteen years, unto fifty, she fasted every day save Sunday and Thursday. In her refection she had no-thing but barley bread, and sometime beans, the which, sodden after fourteen days or three weeks, she ate for all delices. Always she was in prayers in wakings and in penances, she drank never wine ne other liquor, that might make her drunk, in all her life. When she had lived and used this life fifty years, the bishops that were that time, saw and beheld that she was over feeble by abstinence as for her age, and warned her to increase a little her fare. The holy woman durst not gainsay them, for our Lord saith of the prelates : Who heareth you heareth me, and who despiseth you despiseth me, and so she began by obedience to eat with her bread, fish and milk, and how well that, she so did, she beheld the heaven and wept, whereof it is to believe that she saw appertly our Lord Jesus Christ after the promise of the gospel that saith that, Blessed be they that be clean of heart for they shall see God ; she had her heart and body pure and clean.”

Caxton also tells quaintly the story of one of the first miracles performed by Geneviève’s tomb: “An-other man came thither that gladly wrought on the Sunday, wherefor our Lord punished him, for his hands were so benumbed and lame that he might not work on other days. He repented him and confessed his sin, and came to the tomb of the said virgin, and there honoured and prayed devoutly, and on the morn he returned all whole, praising and thanking our Lord, that by the worthy merits and prayers of the holy virgin, grant and give us pardon, grace, and joy perdurable.”

To St. Geneviève’s tomb we shall come on leaving the Panthéon, but here after so much about her adventures when alive I might say something about her adventures when dead. She was buried in 511 in the Abbey church of the Holy Apostles, on the site of which the Panthéon stands. Driven out by the Nor-mans, the monks removed the saint’s body and carried it away in a box; and thereafter her remains were destined to rove, for when the monks returned to the Abbey they did not again place them in the tomb but kept them in a casket for use in processions whenever Paris was in trouble and needed supernatural help. Meanwhile her tomb, although empty, continued to work miracles also.

Early in the seventeenth century her bones were re-stored to her tomb, which was made more splendid, and there they remained until the Revolution. The Revolutionists, having no use for saints, opened Geneviève’s tomb, burned its contents on the Place de Grève, and melted the gold of the canopy into money. They also desecrated the church of St. Etienne-du-Mont (which we are about to visit) and made it a Temple of Theo-philanthropy. A few years later the stone coffer was removed to St. Etienne-du-Mont, where it now is, gorgeously covered with Gothic splendours; but as to how minute are the fragments of the saint that it contains which must have been overlooked by the incendiary Revolutionaries, I cannot say. They are sufficient, however, still to cure the halt and the lame and enable them to leave their crutches behind.

The Panthéon is a vast and dreary building, sadly in need of a little music and incense to humanise it. The frescoes are interesting — those of Puvis de Chavannes in particular, although a trifle too wan — but one cannot shake off depression and chill. The Joan of Arc paintings by Lenepveu are the least satisfactory, the Maid of this artist carrying no conviction with her. But when it comes to that, it is difficult to say which of the Parisian Maids of art is satisfactory : certainly not the audacious golden Amazon of Frémiet in the Place de Rivoli. Dubois’ figure opposite St. Augustin’s is more earnest and spiritual, but it does not quite realise one’s wishes. I think that I like best the Joan in the Boulevard Saint-Marcel, behind the Jardin des Plantes.

The vault of the Panthéon may be seen only in the company of a guide, and there is a charge. To be quite sure that Rousseau is in his grave is perhaps worth the money; but one resents the fee none the less. Great Frenchmen’s graves — especially Victor Hugo’s should be free to all. There is no charge at the Invalides. You may stand beside Heine’s tomb in the Cimitière de Montmartre without money and without a guide, but not by Voltaire’s in the Panthéon ; Balzac’s grave in Père Lachaise is free, Zola’s in the Panthéon costs seventy-five centimes.

The guide hurries his flock from one vault to another, at one point stopping for a while to exchange badinage with an echo. Rousseau, as I have said, is here; Voltaire is here ; here are General Carnot, President Car-not with a mass of faded wreaths, Soufflot, who designed the Panthéon, thinking his work was for St. Geneviève, and who died of anxiety owing to a subsidence of the walls, Victor Hugo, and, lately moved hither, not with-out turmoil and even pistol shots, the historian of the Rougon-Macquart family and the author of a letter of accusation famous in history.

Not without turmoil ! which reminds one that the Panthéon’s funerals have been more than a little grotesque. I said, for example, that Mirabeau was the first prophet of reason to be buried here, amid a concourse of four hundred thousand mourners; yet you may look in vain for his tomb. And there is a record of the funeral of Marat, in a car designed by David ; yet you may look in vain for Marat’s sarcophagus also. The explanation (once more) is that we are in France, the land of the fickle mob. For within three years of the state burial of Mirabeau, with the National Guard on duty, the Convention directed that he should be exhumed and Marat laid in his place. Mirabeau’s body therefore was removed at night and thrown into the earth in the cemetery of Clamart. Enter Marat. Marat, however, lay beneath this imposing dome only three poor months, and then off went he, a discredited corpse, to the graveyard of St. Etienne-du-Mont close by. Voltaire, however, and Rousseau held their own, and here they are still, as we have seen.

Voltaire came hither under circumstances at once tragic and comic. The cortège started from the site of the Bastille, led by the dead philosopher in a cart drawn by twelve horses, in which his figure was being crowned by a young girl. Opposite the Opera house of that day — by the Porte St. Martin — a pause was made for the singing of suitable hymns (from the Ferney Hymnal !) and on it came again. Surrounding the car were fifty girls dressed by David for the part; in the procession were other damsels in the costumes of Voltaire’s characters. Children scattered roses before the horses. What could be prettier for Voltaire ? But it needed fine weather, and instead came the most appalling storm, which frightened all the young women (including Fame from the car) into doorways, and washed all the colour from the great man’s effigy.

Remembering all these things, one realises that Rodin’s Penseur, who was placed before the Panthéon in 1906, has something to brood over and break his mind upon. I noticed also among the graves that of one Ignace Jacqueminot, and wondering if it were he who gave his name to the rose, I was so conscious of gloom and mortality that I hastened to the regions of light — to the sweet air of the Mont du Paris and the blue sky over all. And later I climbed to the lantern — a trifle of some four hundred steps — and looked down on Paris and its river and away to the hills, and realised how much better it was to be a live dog than a dead lion.

For the tomb of St. Geneviève we have only a few steps to take, since it stands, containing all of her that was not burned, in the church of St. Etienne-du-Mont. The first martyr, although he gives his name to the church and is seen suffering the stone, throwers in the re-lief over the door, is, however, as nothing. St. Geneviève is the true patron.

St. Etienne’s is one of the most interesting churches in Paris, without and within. The façade is bizarre and attraotive, with its jumble of styles, its lofty tower and Renaissance trimmings, and the sacristan’s prophet’s-house high up, on the northern side of the odd little extinguisher. You see this best, and his tiny watch-dog trotting up and down his tiny garden, by descending the hill a little way and then turning. Within, the church is fascinating. The pillars of the very lofty nave and aisles are slender and sure, the vaulting is delicate and has a unique carved marble rood-loft to divide the nave from the choir, stretching right along the church, with a rampe of great beauty. The pulpit is held up by Samson seated upon his lion and grasping the jaw-bone of an ass.

The last time I saw this pulpit was during the Fête of St. Geneviève, which is held early in January, when it contained a fluent nasal preacher to whom a congregation that filled every seat was listening with rapt attention. At the same time a moving procession of other worshippers was steadily passing the tomb, which was a blaze of light and heat from some hundreds of candles of every size. The man in front of me in the queue, a stout bourgeois, with his wife and two small daughters, bought four candles at a franc each. He was all nervousness and anxiety before then, but having watched them lighted and placed in position, his face became tranquil and gay, and they passed quickly out, re-entered their motor-cab and returned to the normal life.

Outside the church was a row of stalls wholly given up to the sale of tokens of the saint – little biographies, medals, rosaries, and all the other pretty apparatus of the long-memoried Roman Catholic Church. I bought a silver pendant, a brief biography, and a tiny metal statue. I feel now that had I also bought a candle, as I was minded to, I should have escaped the cold that, developing two or three days later, kept me in bed for nearly a fortnight. One must be thorough.

The church not only has agreeable architectural features and the tomb of this good woman, it has also some admirable glass, not exactly beautiful but very quaint and interesting, including a famous window by the Pinaigriers, representing the mystery of the wine-press, as drawn from Isaiah : ” I have trodden the wine-press alone, and of the people there was none with me.” The colouring is very rich and satisfying, even if the design itself offends by its literalism and want of imagination — Christianity being figured by the blood of Christ as it gushes forth into barrels pressed from his body as relentlessly as ever was juice of the grape. All this is horrible, but one need not study it minutely. There are other windows less remarkable but not less rich and glowing.

Other illustrious dust that lies beneath this church is that of Racine and Pascal.