Easter Mass at the Pantheon

I have something of a history of queue busting in Italy.  Normally, I might feel guilty about this but, in Italy, a queue is not a queue, more a melee.  It is a free-for-all; survival of the fittest.

It was 4 April 2010.  Sunday 4 April 2010.  Easter Sunday.  And I was at the Pantheon, Rome.

It was raining.  God, how it was raining.  A constant, cold, miserable shower that had gone on for hours and, judging by the grey skies overhead, looked as though it would carry on for several more hours yet.  Everywhere was a sea of umbrellas.  Gaudy, multi-coloured, over-sized umbrellas; and tourists wrapped up in see-through plastic rain macs, which made them look like something microwaveable.

The Pantheon itself was not looking its finest.  Half of it was shrouded in scaffolding; half exposed, like a simultaneous exhibition of before-and-after images.  The crowd of umbrellas was thickest the closer I got to the entrance to the Pantheon.  Some people were simply seeking shelter from the rain; many tourists were hoping for a look inside the ancient temple; I was there for a different reason.  I had come to attend the Easter Sunday service.

I pushed my way forward, trying to see what was the hold-up.  At the door, I discovered that entry to the Pantheon was being strictly limited.  Tourists and rain-dodgers were not welcome that morning; only the devoted were being allowed entrance.  Whether there was something about me that had a look of the faithful, I do not know but, much to my surprise, my request to be permitted inside was accepted without query, and before I realised it, I found myself removed from the drenched and dismal mass of humanity waiting outside, and swiftly whisked within the quiet, hallowed interior.  The contrast between the two realms could not have been more great.

To my amazement, I found myself one of only a very small handful of people.  I had expected a much larger gathering for the Easter Mass, but this felt rather as though I had gate-crashed a strictly invitation-only event.

The interior of the Pantheon was vast and geometric and beautiful, and it took all my self-control not to get out my camera and start snapping pictures, but I recognised that this would be a quick way to discredit my spiritual credentials.  Instead, I took my place on one of the few––and rather austere––chairs that were facing the altar, and waited patiently for the “In nomine Patris” to begin.

As Easter Masses go, it was something of a marathon event.  One hour passed, and the hard chair was growing more uncomfortable by the minutes; after two hours, and I was having to shift my weight every few minutes simply to maintain circulation.  However, the surroundings more than made up for the discomfort.  Raising my eyes skyward, and I was captivated by the trompe l’oeil splendour of the largest unsupported dome in the world, and at its centre the Oculus, the eye of the Pantheon, open to the heavens.  And, the heavens were still pouring down.  A steady drizzle fell directly through the Oculus, landing in the centre of the Pantheon itself, from which worshippers who had hoped to bagsy the best seats in the house, had been quick to vacate their places.  In a tribute to Roman architecture and ingenuity, the slanted floor ensured that puddles were not able to form on the floor, and a series of small runnels drained the excess water quickly way.

The vision of rain falling inside the Pantheon was rather mesmeric; I found my mind focussed on this natural wonder rather than on the words of the service, to such an extent that suddenly I realised that there was a scraping of chairs, and the liturgy was completed.  I stretched my numbed limbs and, taking the opportunity before the doors of the Pantheon were once again opened to the massed hoi polloi, I whipped out my camera, and enjoyed a few peaceful minutes of unabashed tourism.

© E. C. Glendenny

 E. C. Glendenny pauses for spiritual reflection. 

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