If you’re in Rome this Sunday (June 9th) and looking for a truly unique and special experience then we suggest that you head down to the Pantheon.
Of course the Pantheon hardly needs a special reason to be visited – it’s undoubtedly the Rogues’ favourite monument in Rome. After all, who wouldn’t want to visit an ancient Roman temple that still boasts the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome? That’s 43.3 metres in case you’re wondering.
This is the best preserved building that we have surviving from Roman antiquity – originally constructed as an ancient Roman temple by Hadrian between AD 118 -125, it was then handed over to the pope, Boniface IV, by the emperor Phocas in AD 609. The pope then consecrated the Pantheon as a church, and re-christened it ‘Sancta Maria ad Martyres’ (Mary and the Martyrs). It was this ‘Christianising’ of a pagan place of worship that ensured the Pantheon survived relatively unscathed through the centuries and wasn’t completely pillaged for building materials, like many of pagan Rome’s other buildings.
The Pantheon is still a church today where, to celebrate Pentecost, every year a very special and ancient ceremony takes place: the rain of the rose petals.
Pentecost is celebrated annually in the Catholic Church fifty days (or the seventh Sunday) after Easter and commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. Mass is held at the Pantheon at 10:30 am to celebrate this feast. Towards the end of the mass at twelve noon, the congregation looks up to the 9 metre wide ‘oculus’ in the dome to see thousands of red rose petals being rained down upon them.
The red petals represent the Holy Spirit, and the ‘tongues of fire’ that came to settle on the Apostles, a story that is recounted in Acts of the Apostles. It is a very ancient ceremony, that may in fact date back to AD 609, when the Pantheon was first consecrated as a church. The tradition was gradually abandoned over the years, but was resurrected in 1995 and is now a staple in the Roman calendar.
Members of the local fire brigade carry the hundreds and thousands of rose petals in canvas bags through a series of narrow corridors and staircases concealed in the walls of the ancient building, and then scale the monstrous dome to the oculus to shower the petals onto the congregation below.
The raining of the petals lasts about five minutes and by the end of the ceremony the floor is thickly carpeted in red roses. It truly is spectacular.
If you want to witness this ancient tradition for yourself then we suggest that you arrive early: mass starts at 10:30 am, but once the 800 person capacity is reached the custodians won’t allow anyone else inside. We would suggest arriving no later than 9:30 am if you want to be sure of getting inside. There is very limited seating for the mass so be aware you’re going to be on feet for a few hours, but it is worth it.