It Snows Inside This Church


Or it would if it were also snowing outside, admittedly a tall order for a city like Rome. Nonetheless, snow can and does — check YouTube — drift through the oculus, the astonishing opening in the astonishing dome of the Pantheon. And despite its seemingly wholehearted embrace of the elements, the Pantheon is said to be the only building from the ancient Roman era that has remained more or less intact and in continuous use today.

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The Pantheon
The Pantheon | Image by KlausF | CC-BY-SA 3.0

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It actually took me three visits to Rome to finally see the Pantheon. The first two times, I’m afraid I just wasn’t very interested. I didn’t know anything about the Pantheon. Hadn’t bothered to research. To my mind it was just this really old building, and in a city chock-full of really old buildings, it just wasn’t a priority.

But then I read a book — the third in a detective series set in Rome — that involved the murder of a woman inside the Pantheon. The crime occurred during a terrible snowstorm, the body buried in thick snow that had fallen through the oculus, and suddenly the Pantheon came alive for me. It wasn’t just an old building anymore — it was a building full of possibilities. I became determined to learn more about it and to see it for myself.

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The Pantheon
Heavily guarded

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The Pantheon
The Pantheon’s entrance alone inspires awe

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The Pantheon
The oculus, the opening at the center of the Pantheon’s dome, looks small but only because it’s so high up

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It’s still a bit of a mystery why the oculus is there in the first place. The hole is the building’s only source of natural light and it provides ventilation, yes; however, that doesn’t seem a satisfactory explanation for why such an important temple would relinquish control to the elements. The oculus’ presence at the very top — where the amazingly unsupported concrete dome would have been at its weakest and most vulnerable to collapse — actually lightens the dome’s load and makes it less vulnerable, so there’s also that.

A more recent theory proposes that the Pantheon also served as a sort of sundial. The light entering the oculus strikes different areas of the building at different times of the day and at different months of the year. More importantly, the light is said to strike the Pantheon’s very entrance at midday every April 21, the anniversary of the founding of Rome. Unfortunately, I only learned about this theory after my visit so I can’t actually verify.

Perhaps another visit is in order.

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Inside the Pantheon
Inside the Pantheon | Image by Stefan Bauer | CC BY-SA 2.5

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