|Discreetly located in a quiet corner of Geneva’s Old Town, next to the 857 years old cathedral of St. Pierre, is the International Museum of the Reformation. It retraces the 500 years’ history of the Reformation movement initiated by the German priest, Martin Luther, supported amongst others by the French theologian and pastor, Jean Calvin, who first came to Geneva in 1536 after breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church. On 22 March this year BRA members, led by Regional Chairman, Michael Bruce, visited the Museum to see how the Reformation had developed over the centuries from a period of lively polemics between followers of the old faith, rallied around the Pope in Rome, and followers of the new faith, Protestantism..
How did the Reformation come about? Although there had been earlier attempts to reform the Roman Catholic Church the period is usually considered to have begun with Luther’s publication of his 1517 work, The Ninety-Five Theses. He criticized the sale of indulgences, insisting that the Pope had no authority over purgatory and that the Catholic doctrine of the merits of the saints had no foundation in the Gospel. The Bible was at the heart of the Reformation and this is illustrated in the first display room you enter in the Museum, located in the magnificent Maison Mallet, built in the 18th century on the former site of the cathedral cloisters where the citizens of Geneva voted for the Reformation in 1536. The previous year the citizens destroyed in a rage all the altars and statues inside the cathedral, as well as most of the paintings. Only the pulpit and some paintings at the tops of the pillars were preserved.
Being Geneva, there are of course many artefacts, books and documents in the Museum relating to the Calvinist period. In Calvin’s time Geneva became a city of refuge for thousands of exiled Protestants from England, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Scotland. One of those from the latter country was John Knox who came with his family. However, it seems that he played hardly any role in the translation and production of the famous Geneva Bible. It was carried out chiefly by English Marian exiles who had fled their country during the reign of Queen Mary I and King Philip of Spain. They were financed by a rich merchant from Exeter, John Bodley, and it was his son, Thomas, who founded the famous Bodleian Library in Oxford.
Although the Museum is focused on the conflicts between Roman Catholics and Protestants up until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, there is a positive end to the visit where a section, located in the basement of the Maison Mallet, has showcases referring to the developing Ecumenical Movement in the 20th century. On this high note, the BRA’s tour ended in a cosy tea room opposite the Cathedral.