Tracing the history of France's hallowed Panthéon temple for national heroes

FEB 21, 2024 LISTEN

Armenian Resistance hero Missak Manouchian will be laid to rest Wednesday in France's Pantheon on the 80th anniversary of his killing by a Nazi firing squad. So-called pantheonisation is France's highest honour – but what are its origins, and what's the criteria for entering this secular temple that celebrates the nation's most eminent figures?

One of the great landmarks of the French capital, the Pantheon – whose architecture is based on the Pantheon in Rome – was the city's tallest building before the construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889.

Its history can be traced back to the French Revolution. In 1791 the National Assembly repurposed the neo-classical Church of Sainte-Genevieve into a temple of the "fatherland" dedicated to commemorating the nation's “great men” – as the gleaming inscription on its facade reads.

Throughout the 19th century, the fate of the Panthéon oscillated between religious and secular use, but in 1885 the death of the renowned writer Victor Hugo solidified its status as a mausoleum honouring the great and the good.

The Panthéon then became the republican equivalent of the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the necropolis of the French kings.

Who's eligible?

The selection process for pantheonisation lacks strict rules. The occupants of the Panthéon's crypt are evidence of the broad interpretation of entry criteria.

A decree handed down in 1885 simply states that "the remains of great men deserving of national honors will be buried there".

During the Napoleonic empire, military and dignitaries were welcomed. But more than half of the 77 greats who entered the Panthéon between 1806 and 1815 are now relatively unknown.

Since the Fifth Republic began in 1958 the final decision has rested with the president alone.

These days, politicians, writers, scientists and activists share the distinguished space. Among them: socialist political figure Jean Jaurès, physicist Marie Curie, French Resistance leader Jean Moulin, philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, Holocaust survivor and politician Simone Veil, and braille writing system inventor Louis Braille.

Curie's panthéonisation in 1996 marked an historic moment as she became the first woman to be honoured in her own right. Today there are six.

American singer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker notably became the first woman of colour to enter the Panthéon in 2021.

Holding French nationality is not technically required. Manouchian, being relocated to the Panthéon today, died stateless despite making several citizenship attempts. His naturalisation file, kept in France's National Archives, contains two unfinished applications.

He's been described by the media as "French by spilled blood".