There are few European cathedrals that have a very Protestant history, but in Geneva, the stronghold of Reformed Christianity throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there is such a place. It is known as St. Pierre’s Cathedral. If you are lucky to visit this beautiful church – or if, like me, you prefer to armchair travel – you will probably notice that the façade is much more modern. It was constructed in the mid 1750s. Yet behind that classical façade is a building that dates back to about 1310. It was already two hundred and twenty-five years old when John Calvin’s booming voice first echoed in its cavernous interior.
So why is St. Pierre’s of Geneva such a piece of Reformation history? Its story is quite intriguing. It witnessed about three rather uneventful centuries as a Catholic place of worship before Calvinist thought began swirling around Geneva. In 1536, this grand cathedral was purchased by Protestants and dedicated as a Reformed church. Keeping to Scriptural demands that graven images be removed, John Calvin’s supporters exiled the church’s ornamentation. St. Pierre’s became a great cavernous space where only the Spirit of God might dwell.
St. Pierre’s (Peter’s) became the antithesis of another St. Peter’s, that in Rome. While Catholic faithful would flock to the Vatican, the beleaguered but burgeoning spirit of Protestantism would find refuge at Geneva, the ‘Protestant Rome,’ as many saw it. Visitors might have thought it strange that such a grand structure, created in a mishmash of styles that reflected the changing centuries over which it was built, might appear so grand on the outside and yet relatively bland on the inside. For despite the typical tall, arched rooms with buttressed arched ceilings and tall rounded windows, St. Pierre’s was unnervingly simple.
But that was the point. Calvinism was setting a new standard for cathedrals. Throughout history, cathedrals were, of a necessity, stacked full of colors, details, and features. Protestantism believed such things were unnecessary. God desired his children to worship uncluttered. He wanted their minds to remain on the life-giving words pouring forth from the pulpit. Thus, St. Pierre’s became a symbol.
In my armchair travels I have discovered that one of the things you can see at the cathedral is the Chaise de Calvin, Calvin’s chair. True to his austerity, the chair is a simple wooden construction, narrowly- backed, with high, spindly arms and a broad, flat seat. It is amazing to think that one of the Reformers who shaped the Protestant world so immensely should have sat on this very chair. Yet Calvin --- and Luther, and most of the Reformers --- would discourage such a thought. They wanted their message to be only about the Gospel, the hope it would bring, and the behavior Christians should employ.
(c) 2012 Joyously Saved