St-Peter's in the modern age: the Reformation and its aftermath

The Swiss allies

The dawning of the 16th century brought with it great upheaval for Geneva. On the religious front, its citizens were good Catholics, but demonstrated a well-informed kind of faith. Lecturers were invited to St Peter’s, and the locals loved to discuss religious matters; they were capable of critical thinking and had a good level of education by the standards of the day.

On the political front, their thirst for independence, already frustrated by the bishop and the clergy’s governance, is made even more acute by their constant struggle against the appetites of the Dukes of Savoy. They blame the Catholic Church for not supporting them against the Duke’s oppression. The majority of Geneva’s citizens therefore turned towards their Swiss neighbours. In 1526, the Council, strengthened by its alliance with Bern and Fribourg, banned the Duke of Savoy - who had hitherto always been received with much munificence - from entering the city. The fortifications were repaired, and lookouts were positioned in the towers of the cathedral. They resent the Catholic Church for not supporting them against the Duke's oppression. The majority of Genevans turned to their Swiss neighbors. In 1526, fortified by its alliance with Berne and Fribourg, the Council forbade the Duke of Savoy - who had previously been received with great pomp during his visits - to enter the town. The fortifications were repaired, and watchmen installed in the cathedral towers.

The last mass at St Peter's

Located in the centre of Europe, the people of Geneva followed the events going on around them closely, and rebelled against the relaxing of certain customs in the church. Luther’s struggle against the papacy captured their imaginations. The reforms preached by Farel gained ever more support. Despite being banned by the Council, Farel spoke from the top of the pulpit in St Peter’s. In August 1535, what was to be the last ever Catholic service in the cathedral ended in a riot, with the congregation ejecting the priests and throwing the statues and other objects of ‘idolatry’ out after them. The authorities imposed a provisional ban on celebrating mass. Before the Reformation was adopted, the walls of the cathedral were painted in bright colours. Opulent decoration abounded, with tapestries suspended from the walls, church habits, calicos, chandeliers, paintings, sacred images and reliquaries inhabiting the space (for a long time, churchgoers revered fragments of the arm of St Anthony and the brain of St Peter, before eventually discovering that they were parts of a stag and a lump of pumice stone, respectively!).


Before the Reformation, the cathedral walls were painted in bright colors. Everywhere, rich decorations, tapestries hung on the walls, church vestments, chalices, candlesticks, paintings, sacred images and reliquaries adorned the space (fragments of an arm of Saint Anthony and the brain of Saint Peter were long revered before it was discovered that they were pieces of deer and pumice stone!)

The iconoclasts destroyed the altars and the statues and paintings that adorned them. The organs were broken apart, the rood screen and jube taken out, and the pews removed. The magnificent retable made by Konrad Witz, which was presented by Bishop Francis of Metz in 1444 and was intended to sit atop the main altar, was dismantled (some of the panels would survive, including a celebrated one called The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, and can be seen at the Museum of Art and History of Geneva, magnificently restored to their former glory). The stained glass windows in the choir were also spared. The elements on the walls and the pulpit were left untouched.

The Reformation is proclaimed: Jean Calvin in Geneva

In the spring of 1536, the people of Bern came to Geneva’s rescue when the Duke of Savoy laid siege to the city. They took control of the Chillon Castle and liberated François Bonivard, whom the duke had imprisoned there. The prince-bishop of Geneva fled, frightened by the political and religious conflicts that had broken out. The clergy left the city and mass was abolished once and for all. On 21 May 1536, the General Council adopted the principles of the Reformation in the cloisters of the cathedral. Sermons took place four times a week at St Peter’s, and all the council members were required to be present for them.

Also in 1536, Guillaume Farel brings Jean Calvin, who had taken refuge in Basel, to Geneva. The severe austerity that the two men wished to impose on the city prompted strong opposition. At Easter 1538, Calvin preached at St Peter’s, despite the ban imposed by the government, and was himself banned, along with Farel. Calvin took refuge in Strasbourg, but continued to support the Reformation in Geneva from there. In 1541 he returned to Geneva, at the Council’s own request. From that point on, he gradually began to impose his political and religious rules there, handing out severe reprimands for any religious or moral transgressions.

The magistrates and citizens were forced to submit to the Confession of faith established by Calvin, under penalty of being banished from the city. Pews were installed in the church, along with alms boxes intended for offerings for the poor. In 1543, the pulpit was placed in the position where it still stands today. The organs were melted down and turned into vases and cups for communion. Calvin felt that musical instruments were nothing more than an embellishment, and that they therefore distorted the singing of hymns of worship, which ought to be kept pure and straightforward.

Birth of the Academy of Geneva

In 1559, Calvin founded the Academy of Geneva, which incorporated an elementary school and the college and university of Geneva, dispensing lessons in literature, the languages of the Bible and theology, and a law school (which retained its religious affiliation until the end of the 19th century). A year later, the first ever ‘Promotions du Collège’ ceremony took place, with awards handed out to the best pupils. It became an annual tradition that lasted until 1856, when it was moved to Plainpalais.

Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre

In the second half of the 16th century, Protestants who had been banished from their home countries poured into the city, and the preachers at St Peter’s put pressure on the citizens, asking each of them to donate money to help look after the refugees. The Chapel of the Maccabees was given over to the Italians so that they could hold a service in Italian every Sunday, a tradition that lasted until 1870.

In August 1572, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre plunged the city into a state of shock. This event led to a sharp rise in the number of refugees entering the city.

The Struggle against Savoy

The late 16th century was a time of renewed tension with Savoy, who dreamed of taking Geneva, and who, in the meantime, laid siege to the city, making it very difficult to resupply it. Accessing the city became so risky that even the students stayed away. The Academy was temporary closed and the professors furloughed. Suffocated from all sides, but encouraged and sustained by the King of France who was at war with Savoy, the Genevans went on the offensive against the Savoyard troops, with a certain amount of success. They were soon reinforced by an army of 10,000 men sent by Bern, which seized Ripaille and liberated the outskirts of the city. Before long, though, this external support moved away to other objectives, and Geneva was once again left alone against a Duke of Savoy who was now irritated and vengeful. He reimposed the siege of the city, cutting off its supply lines. In 1601, a peace was concluded between the France of Henry IV (author of the Edict of Nantes in 1598) and Savoy, who lost Bresse, Bugey and the land of Gex. Geneva found solace, but could not rest easy.

On the night of 11th to 12th December 1602, the lookout at St Peter’s heard a series of gunshots. He immediately raised the alarm by ringing the tocsin, and soon all the other bells in the city were being rung. The Genevans came out into the streets and tried to fight off the enemy, who were infiltrating the city from all sides by scaling the walls. The cannon were fired, destroying the ladders used by the Savoyards, who found themselves cut off from the bulk of their force, which was massed in Plainpalais. A few days later, a service of gratitude was celebrated at St Peter’s, which was packed to the rafters for the occasion. This celebration of the ‘Escalade’ would go on to be repeated every year, right up to the present day.

The Duke’s troops were still outside the city, though, and Geneva remained on high alert. Bern and Zurich sent 1000 men to reinforce the city’s defences. Peace talks were initiated, ending with the signing of a peace agreement between Geneva and Savoy in July 1603.

The year 1605 saw the death of Théodore de Bèze, who had been the heart and soul of the cathedral for 40 years. Due to fears that his tomb might be profaned outside the cathedral’s walls, he was interred in the cloisters at St Peter’s, by contrast with Calvin, who had insisted on being buried at Plainpalais.

Prominent Protestants buried at St Peter’s

In 1620, Agrippa d’Aubigné, the ‘enfant terrible’ of the Reformation, arrived in Geneva. He was a fierce Huguenot warrior who had fought alongside the author of the Edict of Nantes, Henry IV, and would never forgive him for his abjuration. He was to spend the last ten years of his life at his Château du Crest in Jussy, near Geneva, faithfully occupying the place reserved for him in the front row at St Peter’s. On his death in 1630, he was interred in the cloister. In 1629, St Peter’s Cathedral hosted Princess Amélie of Portugal’s remains, a Protestant and daughter of the great Protestant king William of Orange. The service was held in a little-used chapel that subsequently became known as the Chapel of Portugal. She had moved into the Château de Prangins two years earlier.

In 1638, the cathedral played host to the funeral of the Duke of Rohan, a great hero of the French Reformation, who was killed in battle and who had wanted to be buried at St Peter’s. The Council did indeed grant him this honour, choosing for the purpose a different chapel that had not been used since the Reformation.

Revocation of the Edict of Nantes

The revocation of theEdict of Nantes by Louis XIV on 22 October 1685 meant a fresh influx of refugees, who were initially encouraged to move on to Vaud (Bern) so as not to stir up the anger of the King of France and put the reformed city’s independence in danger. Among these refugees were numerous Piedmontese, who had been expelled by the Duke of Savoy. From 1688 onwards, Louis XIV was at war with a large European coalition, and was therefore too preoccupied to pay attention to Geneva. The refugees were now given permission to stay. Severe austerity was once again the order of the day: everyone was expected to make a contribution, to help raise the funds needed to house the new arrivals. St Peter and the other temples in the city would no longer be able to provide for everyone on their own. The Council of the Two Hundred decided to build a new place of worship: the New Temple or the Temple of the Fusterie (