Over the summer I met a man who, after hearing what I study, told me that years ago he went on a sort of “grand tour” of Europe and he has a distinct memory of visiting Geneva because the city’s cathedral was so, well, awful.
“It’s so drab,” he said. “It’s striking how ugly it is.”
And this man wasn’t necessarily wrong — the first time I entered St. Pierre, I was struck by the several stacks of, well, I don’t know what they are. Old doors? Rock slabs? Ancient building materials?
But I think my acquaintance missed something important. Sure, if you compare ornate and ancient Catholic churches and cathedrals — like those my acquaintance saw in Italy on his grand tour — you might find St.-Pierre to be lacking. But finding the white-washed walls of Protestant churches bereft of ornament or display to be lacking is to ignore the intention behind this stylization. As Lee Palmer Wandel has argued, Protestants created a new visual aesthetic, focused on simplicity. The simplicity of Protestant churches was intended to highlight the majesty of God’s word, rather than the artistic abilities of men. The simplicity utilized by Protestants in reforming and redecorating (dedecorating, if you will) old churches and in building new churches was, moreover, associated with purity. Whereas Catholics believed that spaces, like churches, were themselves holy, Protestants believed it was the act of worship itself that was holy, rather than the space in which that act occurred.
In Geneva’s cathedral, after the iconoclastic actions of the 1530s (which you can read about in my previous blog post here), which led to the systematic emptying of liturgical furnishings — including altars, images, decorations, and even vestments — the city made no effort to simplify or otherwise alter the space. In fact, St.-Pierre had retained its rood screen, which separated the choir from the nave, as well as the canons’ stalls until 1541. In that summer, Geneva’s magistrates demolished the rood screen and moved the canons’ stalls into the choir, where the city officials would conspicuously sit during sermons, watching over their constituents.
Although the city had decided to begin constructing a pulpit in St.-Pierre in 1541, construction didn’t begin until 1543. The new pulpit was an integral part of the Protestant worship service, and its somewhat astonishing that the city put off adding a proper pulpit for son long. Whereas the most important part of a Catholic mass is the moment of transubstantiation — and, specifically, when the priest lifts the transformed bread above his head — no such climax occurs during a Protestant service. Instead, the sermon is the central act the service. This underscores why Protestants preferred simplified church spaces: the idea is that people will best be able to focus on the words of the sermon, and indeed the word of God, without the distractions that (in the Protestant view) clutters a Catholic church. In St.-Pierre, the new pulpit backed against a column at the crossing of the nave and the transept, centering the preacher in the exact middle of the church so that his voice could be easily heard throughout the church.
The church’s remaining decorations were removed until the whitewashing of 1544, and efforts to reform the cathedral finally finished in 1546. It took over a decade, then, for the city to fully “Protestantize” its main church, the very church in which John Calvin mounted the pulpit and preached — and the “drab” and “ugly” church that my acquaintance remembered so vividly.
It’s possible my acquaintance may just been expressing his perfectly valid personal opinion that simple designs are drab, boring, and ugly (I would guess, then, he likely isn’t a fan of modern design). But I think my acquaintance not only missed the point of the simple decorations of St.-Pierre and all Reformed churches, but I think he also missed some of the greatest parts of the church. For example, he must have ignored the Chapel of the Maccabees.
This chapel, to the south of the main entrance, was originally built in the fifteenth century to serve as a tomb for a cardinal, and was renovated into its current neo-Gothic style in the nineteenth century. The chapel is small, yet incredibly ornate, with the exact opposite aesthetic tendency as the rest of the cathedral. Indeed, I’ve found the room so compelling and even overwhelming in its use of colors, symbols, and even Swiss coats of arms that I don’t even know how to go about taking a picture of it — it should be experienced in person.
The cathedral features another treasure that I don’t think anyone who visits Geneva should miss: the tower tour. This self-guided tour costs 5CHF (or euros), and after climbing 157 narrow, winding steps up the north tower, you’re treated to a panoramic view of the city.
Even on a day that isn’t as clear as the one I enjoyed when I climbed to the towers last April, the tour is still worth it.
You’ll be able to view the bells in the South tower as well as its observation room, and wonderful views of the cathedral’s mismatched towers. I recommend timing your visit so that you’ll be in the North tower during the hourly chiming of the bells.
Finally, a last favorite of mine from the cathedral: the blue detail above the main entrance. For a boring, drab building, the St.-Pierre Cathedral is well worth a visit — just make sure to look and go up.
Grosse, Christian. “Places of Sanctification: The Liturgical Sacrality of Genevan Reformed Churches, 1535-1566.” In Sacred Space in Early Modern Europe, edited by Will Coster and Andrew Spicer, 60-80. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Wandel, Lee Palmer. Voracious Idols and Violent Hands: Iconoclasm in Reformation Zurich, Strasbourg, and Basel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.