Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Pantheon: Part 4

Today's photos:

1. The dome with its oculus dominates this aerial view of the Pantheon.

2. This lady is dwarfed by the massive front doors.

3. You can enjoy this view of the dome from the terrace of the Hotel Minerva. Notice the stairway cut into the stone, leading up to the oculus.

4. The sunlight streams through the oculus creating a spotlight on the inner wall of the dome.

5. What are these firemen doing at the top of the dome?

6. It is Pentacost Sunday and the firemen are throwing rose petals down through the oculus.

7. Down come the rose petals!

8. Some of the firemen can be seen from the nearby Piazza Minerva.

9. It is April 21 and the spotlight moves inexorably toward the doorway.

10. It's almost there! (Sorry, I have lost my photo of the spotlight as it hits the door, but believe me . . . it got there!

It is interesting to see the Pantheon's dome from unusual vantage points, such as the aerial view (photo 1) and the view from the terrace of the nearby Hotel Minerva (photo 3).

As you enter the Pantheon, notice the large double doors made of bronze (photo 2). These are the original doors, but in the sixteenth century they were taken down, recast and put back up. They are so big that some people just can't believe that they are still in use, but I can assure you that they are opened and closed every day . . . by hand!

The mighty dome and its oculus

Once inside, your eyes will automatically be drawn to the magnificent dome and its circular opening in the center, the oculus (photo 4).

Many people are surprised to discover that the oculus is not covered with glass or any other material; it is open to the sky. It was built that way for practical reasons, to provide light and fresh air into the building, since there are no windows opening up to the outside. You will occasionally see birds flying around inside. And when it rains, the water comes in and drains out through several inconspicuous holes in the floor beneath it. The oculus measures 9 meters across.

A curiosity

During the middle ages there was a widespread belief that when the building was transformed into a church in the seventh century, devils which had inhabited the pagan temple flew out, bursting through the top of the dome, thereby creating the oculus.

The dome has always fascinated visitors to the Pantheon, especially trained architects. When Michelangelo was designing the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, he had such great admiration for the Pantheon's architect that he declared that he would not make the dome of the basilica larger than that of the Pantheon. And in fact, this dome is one meter larger in circumference than Michelanelo's dome over St. Peter's. The circumference of the Pantheon is exactly the same distance as its height – 43.3 meters.

Pentecost in the Pantheon

Pentecost Sunday is the day when the Church recalls the Gospel story of the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the heads of the apostles in the form of tongues of fire. Pentecost, from the Greek word meaning fiftieth, is a movable feast in the Church which occurs fifty days after Easter. On that day in the Pantheon a solemn Mass is celebrated, at the end of which firemen throw down from the oculus thousands of red rose petals which come fluttering down on the congregation below, to recall the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire (photos 5-8).

This is an extremely old tradition in the Pantheon, begun by Pope Benedict XI (1303-1304). The custom continues to this day, even though there have been periods when it was interrupted and then taken up again. It is a spectacular sight to see all those rose petals fluttering softly down from the oculus. A large crowd gathers every year to witness this unusual sight.

April 21 in the Pantheon

When you find yourself in the Pantheon on a beautiful sunny day you will notice that the sunlight streaming through the oculus creates a spotlight effect on the interior wall of the dome. Amazingly, every year on April 21, the birthday of Rome, at exactly 12:00 noon this spotlight hits the front door, the only time this phenomenon happens. This is, of course, not a freak accident, but something planned and calculated at the time the building was constructed. The plan was for the emperor Hadrian to be present at the inauguration of the building, so it was decided that he should arrive at exactly 12:00 just as the spotlight bathes the entrance with rays of light (Photos 9-10).

It is only recently that this phenomenon has been brought to the attention of the public, so now there is always a large crowd on hand every year to witness this extraordinary event. It is interesting to be there about half an hour before noon (1:00 pm during daylight savings time) to watch the spotlight as it inexorably approaches the entrance.

A curiosity

I have my own "Pantheon dome story" to tell. I spent the summer of 1972 in Rome with a group of classics teachers in the summer program of the American Academy in Rome. We had a wonderful leader that year, the late Professor John D'Arms of the University of Michigan. He arranged for our group to climb to the top of the dome and view the interior of the Pantheon from the oculus. We took an elevator inside the six meter thick wall of the building up to the base of the dome. From there we climbed up to the oculus by means of a stairway cut into the stone on the outside of the dome. (You can clearly see this stairway in photo #3). I was able to lie on my stomach, put my hands on the edge of the oculus and look down into the Pantheon. It was truly an extraordinary and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. No one is allowed to do this anymore. The only people you will ever see at the top of the dome are the firemen who throw the rose petals down on Pentecost Sunday and the maintenance workers when there is need to inspect and do repair work.


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