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The Medieval History of the Pantheon

One of the great landmarks of ancient Rome is the Pantheon. Built around the year 126 AD by emperor Hadrian, it initially served as a temple to all gods. However, in the Early Middle Ages the Pantheon would be repurposed.

Entering the Pantheon – photo by Neil Cornwall / Flickr

This story is told in the recently published article “The Pantheon in the Middle Ages,” by Erik Thuno. He notes that often records about the Pantheon are scarce in this period, particular before the seventh-century, when the city of Rome was in decline and partially abandoned.

“The long history of the Pantheon in the Middle Ages is inextricably bound up with the decision made during the pontificate of Boniface IV (608-615) to transform the ancient building into a Christian church,” Thuno writes. “Because Rome was under Byzantine control during this period, the pope had asked the emperor under Phocas (602-610) in Constantinople for permission to appropriate the building for the Church. The contemporary account of the life and donations of Pope Boniface (in the Liber Pontificalis) mentions briefly that ‘he [Boniface] asked the emperor Phocas for the temple called the Pantheon, and in it he made the church of the ever-virgin St Mary and all the martyrs; in this church the emperor presented many gifts.’”

Thuno believes that the consecration of the Pantheon took place in the year 609. He also dismisses a story that states Pope Boniface brought 28 cartloads of martyrs’ bones to the site, as this tale was probably invented in the 16th century.

Despite its new status, the Pantheon was still vulnerable to be plundered for its pieces. Paul the Deacon reports that when Emperor Constans II visited Rome in 663 he took a liking to the old Roman temple:

Remaining at Rome twelve days he pulled down everything that in ancient times had been made of metal for the ornament of the city, to such an extent that he even stripped off the roof of the church [of the blessed Mary], which at one time was called the Pantheon, and had been founded in honour of all the gods and was now by the consent of the former rulers the place of all the martyrs; and he took away from there the bronze tiles and sent them with all the other ornaments to Constantinople.

While the new church was dedicated to both to the Virgin Mary and the martyrs of the Catholic church, it soon began to be identified more exclusively with the former. By the second half of the eighth-century it gained an unofficial nickname: Sanctae Mariae Rotundae. It was also probably around this period that an icon of the Virgin and Child was placed inside the Pantheon – it can still be seen there today.

Thuno explains that besides the addition of an altar, little was changed on the interior of the Pantheon. The exterior, on the other hand, had several changes over the centuries, including the addition of a cross and the removal of some of its marble and architectural features.

Another interesting note about the Pantheon was that it served as the prototype for a number of medieval churches that were built around Europe and dedicated to Mary – architectural historians have noticed that elements from the ancient structure were replicated in medieval buildings, although never as grand as the original.

As this was happening, the Pantheon continued to find use as a church, although it was usually only used for special occasions. The Pope himself would hold special services there on January 1st, Easter Friday, and May 13th (the day honour its original consecration). Around the year 1100, the New Year’s Day ceremony was moved to another church, and the service known as Dominica de Rosa was hosted at the Pantheon – during this mass, roses would be dropped into the church through its cupola, symbolizing the return of the Holy Spirit.

16th century engraving of the Pantheon by Antonio Lafreri

Thuno explains that it made good sense for the Popes to use the Pantheon only a few times per year – the building was located in a bustling part of the city, and if you wanted to hold a Papal mass you needed to have a large space to accommodate the many parishioners. Moreover, he writes:

the cupola’s huge open eye would have made regular service rather uncomfortable at times; aside from rain that kept the faithful from standing in the center of the church, the opening in the dome would have rendered the space both damp and chilly during the winter season. Clearly, as long as the open eye was not closed – which it never was – the Pantheon was not really a suitable building for daily services. Quite simply, it did not work as an ordinary church. But precisely because of this shortcomings entailed by its unique architectural form, Santa Maria Rotunda was all the more magnificent as a setting for the pope’s occasional appearances in the centre of medieval Rome.

Erik Thuno’s article, “The Pantheon in the Middle Ages,” appears in the book The Pantheon: From Antiquity to the Present, edited by Tod A. Marder and Mark Wilson Jones.

See also The Medieval History of Stonehenge

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