Sunday, June 3, 2012


sublime: adj.  impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration, etc.

That pretty much describes the Pantheon.  No matter how often I walk beneath that portico of 40 foot grey and rose granite columns (grey across the front, rose on the inside, except for 2 on the east side that were replaced in 1660 ) and enter the bronze doors (reputed to be original), my eyes automatically lift above the hordes of tourists snapping photos, upwards,  towards the oculus.  This building is the third iteration of the Pantheon, built by Hadrian in 126 AD, modifying (or even re-positioning, the verdict is still out) the original Pantheon of Agrippa from 27 BC, which had been restored by Domitian after a major fire in 80 AD. 

One afternoon last summer, when I was in the "neighborhood" I stopped by as much to escape the heat of the roman summer as an acknowledgement of the magic that the building exerts on me.  With no agenda, I entered and let my eyes wander......  It was then that I noticed there was something peculiar about the arch above the portal.  It wasn't a true "roman' arch - that ubiquitous perfect half circle.  It was more squashed, bordering on the elliptical.   And it was the only one. Why?

After several more visits,  I began to believe that the slightly elliptical void related somehow to the beam of light that entered through great oculus, or eye in the dome and gently traced an arc across the expanse of dome.  Each day the arc is slightly different, shifting and drifting across the dome in response to the earth's wobble around the sun.  Maybe the two, one fixed and one in motion, would line up on an auspicious day.   I began my watch.  I hypothesized that maybe it would be the spring equinox.  The beam of light approached closer and closer to the void each day as March 21 approached, the lowest point of its daily arc happening about noon.  On March 21 it was close, but no clean alignment.  The next day I believed to be auspicious was April 21, the ancient roman festival of Pales, goddess of shepherds, the day revered to be the date Romulus founded the city of Rome in 753 BC.  Romulus dug the pomerium, or sacred boundary, of his city on the Palatine (one of the 7 hills of Rome).  That hill has since given us the word palace from the immense imperial residences there, and was originally dedicated to Pales, herself.

Almost daily I checked on the progress of the beam and the void, and at the stroke of noon (actually it was 1 pm since the clocks had been moved forward for daylight savings), on April 8, the beam and the void lined up.  I was crushed.  Was this meeting just a coincidence and totally lacking in cosmic significance?  I had to ponder this over a gelato, and the math worked itself out.  The Julian calendar, set in place by the father of the empire himself, Julius Ceasar in 46 BC was hopelessly out of whack by the renaissance.  A new calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, skipping 10 days to bring the calendar into sync with the solar year.  Since then, the Julian calendar has slipped another 3 days behind.

The 13 days I was missing were found.  Heaven and Earth were united for the festival of Pales; the beam of light connected as it has for 2 millennium with the void to illuminate the north facing porch of the temple.  The great gears of the cosmos continue to turn, reminding the ancients of its power, while the hordes of tourists continue to mill about unaware.