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Posted: June 12

St. Peter's Cathedral: the case of the missing art

(Geneva) Actually I have been in Rome all week, working on a report for Father General in preparation for the meeting of Jesuit major superiors in Loyola, Spain, next December. The report comes from statistics which I have been compiling thanks to the project of publishing an online directory of Jesuit communicators and communication works. Although my body was planted in front of the computer all week, I find myself thinking back to last Sunday afternoon in Geneva, Switzerland.

The meeting of editors of cultural journals ended early in the morning so I took a train back to Geneva with Father Ulf Jonsson from Sweden. We had enough time to wander around and see some of the old city center, which sits on top of a low hill overlooking Lake Geneva. On the way between the train station and the old town, we paused at the massive monument to the founders of the Reformation. Enormous stone figures of Calvin and other Protestant leaders glare down somberly on the park which today is full of families relaxing on the grass. I don’t think Calvin would have approved of such a frivolous way to spend the Lord’s day. Certainly the most striking feature of the architecture in old Geneva is that it is very solid and serious: no frivolity (not even a hint of the Baroque) and not even the graceful proportions of Rome’s Rennaissance buildings.

The center of the old town is so tightly packed with 17th century edifices that the cathedral hides until you arrive at the small square in front of it. Construction on the church dedicated to St. Peter began in 1160, so imagine my surprise when we turned a corner and found not a Gothic façade but an uninspired neo-classical portico with massive columns. Just the bottom of the original rose window peeked below the square lines of the ceiling of the later addition. Except for the tower rising behind the columns, the church looked more like a federal office building in Washington than a typical historic church of Europe.

We entered through a small and not especially welcoming door and came into a large interior with bare stone walls. The stained glass windows added some color, but the space was visually empty: no statues, or art—or even altarpiece, just a large open Bible sitting on a long stand that was clearly designed not to look like a table (let alone an altar) with some wooden seats behind for those presiding over services. That was it. The space looked empty and felt sad to me. A church without art, without saints, lacks something essential. Then I looked for a red candle, an indication of the presence of the Eucharist--and of course there was none, since the Eucharist was one of the doctrines and practices that the reformers rejected. I also missed the signs of an active church—notices about the youth group’s next trip, or choir practice, or whatever. This cathedral was resolutely empty.

Later I learned that the Cathedral was systematically stripped in the 16th century of its original furnishings, altars, statues and paintings when the followers of Calvin took over the city after his return in 1541. The 1444 altarpiece that featured a painting by Konrad Witz showing the miraculous draught of fishes now resides in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire which considers it one of its treasures. The painting ranks among the milestones of Early Rennaissance painting and was originally the left wing of an altarpiece dedicated to St. Peter, patron of the cathedral. The reformers felt less appreciation when Calvin took over the cathedral as his own church and made it the seat of his reform.

The complex history of this period of conflict is not especially inviting to revisit. Mostly, though, I felt a sadness in being in a church that seems mostly a museum, and even less than that. I confess myself hopelessly Catholic in my desire to see images of saints and reminders of the stories of the people who led up to the people who use a church today. We need more art in our churches, not less; more appeal to the heart and imagination and more celebration of the beauty of God’s creation.

And the irony is that my own forebears, the brothers Rochefort who settled in Ireland in 1792, were themselves Huguenots, members of the same church that Calvin began. Fortunately, they were expelled from France and became Catholics in Ireland before moving on under economic pressure to the United States, where one of their descendants met a woman whose Catholic parents left Central Europe during World War I. Out of all this history came my family, and me. Thank you, Lord.

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