Museum of the Reformation

24/02/2006

Doolan, Paul

August 1st, 2005
History Today, Volume 55; Issue 8

Paul Doolan visits a new museum in Geneva that presents the history of Reformed Christianity and Calvinism as a key and positive factor in European history.

PERHAPS THE MOST REMARKABLE THING about Geneva's new International Museum of the Reformation is that it has taken so long: in 1959, on the 400th anniversary of the publication of Calvin's Institutes, the idea was first floated that a museum should be founded in Geneva, the Rome of Protestantism. In April the museum finally opened its doors, with an impressive array of objects relating to Calvin and the Reformation in Geneva and its expansion throughout the world.

The new museum is housed on the ground floor of the eighteenth-century Mallet House, next to the St Pierre Cathedral, where John Knox once preached, and on the spot where the town council declared the city Reformed in May 1536. The museum, like the Reformed churches that it celebrates, is rich in texts. An early English Bible created by refugees fleeing Mary Tudor and dedicated to Elizabeth is prominently displayed, as are early French, Italian and German translations of God's, word. A replica of an early printing press stands in a corner that celebrates John Knox, who also found refuge in this city. One room remembers the French Wars of Religion and displays a collection of printed works and manuscripts donated by the art collector Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller. The documents here include autographs from Francis I, Henry III and Henry IV as well as Catherine de' Medici.

Too much text might prove tedious, especially for the visitor who lacks a command of Latin or French. But in the banqueting hall, modern technology permits one to eavesdrop a conversation among Geneva's citizens and reformers, from Calvin to Rousseau, on the topic of predestination. Calvin's views on the subject are famous - humans are depraved creatures, damned to hell, and only a few will be saved by God's grace. The nineteenth-century drawing room allows you to sit on a modern glass chair and enjoy a fifteen-minute audio-visual about the Reformation on your own private screen. Technology is wonderful only when it works: on the day of my visit, alas, it didn't.

The tiny music room, with amazing acoustics, provides the visitor with a menu of musical choices from Luther to Bach to contemporary chorale pieces. Surrounded by the magnificence of the human voice, one can understand that it was music, in particular the metrical psalter, and not the pessimistic dogma of predestination, that was the secret of Calvinism's success.

From Geneva, Calvin's teaching spread to South Africa by way of Holland, America by way of England, and found a home in Scotland and the north of Ireland. It is no wonder that Museum director Isabelle Graessle describes the museum as 'a must in order to understand Geneva as a city, as a culture and as the core of one of the major spiritual streams in Europe and elsewhere.'

Calvin's legacy was undoubtedly humanistic: its sobriety attracted the new urban bourgeoisie and its intellectual rigour appealed to some of Europe's finest minds; it promoted literacy, individuality and free enterprise. But the museum fails to dwell on the darker aspects of early Reformation Geneva. Audio-visual displays and poignant engravings document the trials and tribulations of the Waldensians (members of the heresy that had survived in Alpine areas since the twelfth century, and who were given asylum in Geneva) and the persecution of French Huguenots after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. But Reformers were not the only victims. Under Calvin's leadership the people of Geneva endured a regime of harsh discipline. Dancing, drinking, gambling and singing bawdy songs were denounced. Engaging in flirtation, the wearing of bright clothes or the reading of frivolous books could bring about the wrath of the religious authorities. Some crimes were punishable by drowning, beheading and burning. Protestant Geneva was a cruel as anywhere else when it came to the churchsanctioned killings of socalled witches. Those who disagreed with Calvin, and there were many, were silenced by imprisonment, exile, or even death.

The most notorious case was that of Michel Servetus. A medical doctor and anatomist as well as a priest, Servetus made the fatal error of suggesting that God could not be composed of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. The Catholic Church and the fledgling Protestant churches joined together in denouncing this antitrinitarianism. Servetus, condemned to death by the Inquisition, fled from Catholic Lyon to Geneva, where he was arrested and the city authorities declared: 'we condemn you Michael Servetus, to be bound and taken to Champel, and there attached to a stake and burned with your book to ashes'. His execution met with Calvin's approval. Reformation historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has described this incident as 'an extraordinary saga of ecumenical viciousness'.

Geneva makes a splendid destination for anyone with an interest in the Reformation and this museum should be on everyone's itinerary. But you will need to search hard to find any mention of Michel Servetus.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Geneva's new International Museum of the Reformation is that it has taken so long: in 1959, on the 400th anniversary of the publication of Calvin's Institutes, the idea was first floated that a museum should be founded in Geneva, the Rome of Protestantism. In April, the museum finally opened its doors, with an impressive array of objects relating to Calvin and the Reformation in Geneva and its expansion throughout the world. Doolan visits a new museum in Geneva that presents the history of Reformed Christianity and Calvinism as a key and positive factor in European history.