They're sculpted right into the old city walls of Geneva. Spanning over 100 meters wide, this is the Reformation Wall, which depicts major figures of the Protestant Reformation in giant status and bas-reliefs.
At the center of the wall, the bearded figures include John Calvin, William Farel, Théodore de Bèze and John Knox. To the left and right sides, there are the important figures that have helped spread the spread of Protestant Reformation throughout the 16th century.
Engraved on the wall is the motto of both Calvinist philosophy, Geneva and the University of Geneva (UNIGE): Post tenebras, lux, Latin for after darkness, light. Below the four central statues that are 13 meters high, there’s the Christogram, ΙΗΣ, which forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ in Christian Churches.
Did you know that the Reformation Wall is a fairly recent addition to Parc des Bastions and was only inaugurated in 1909?
The contest to transform Parc des Bastions
Parc des Bastions is located within the premises of UNIGE, which was founded by John Calvin in 1559. In 1902, UNIGE’s professor of theology August Chantre had the idea of commemorating 400 years of Calvin’s birth and the 350th anniversary of UNIGE.
To turn this into a reality, he set up a committee of himself, Charles Borgeaud, UNIGE’s professor of history and law, and sculptor Maurice Reymond. They realized that the best idea was to create a monument dedicated to Calvin, the Reformation and Servet.
In 1906, Chantre publicly introduced the committee as the Association of the Monument of the Reformation (AMR), and began recruiting members and collecting funds internationally. AMR organized an international contest to create a monument that would transform the park and celebrate Calvin’s impact.
Out of 71 proposals from around the world, the winning project was Le Mur by 4 Swiss architects, Charles Dubois, Alphonse Laverrière, Eugène Monod, and John Taillens. Two French artists, Paul Landowski and Henri Bouchard, both trained at the prestigious Beaux-Arts de Paris, were chosen as the sculptors for this project.
They chose the slightly-pink Pouillenay stone from Bourgogne, France, and Mont-Blanc granite. In 1909, the Reformation Wall was inaugurated, and the whole construction was finished in 1917.
In 2020, the Reformation Wall celebrates its 103rd anniversary.
Geneva, the center of Calvinism, and origins of UNIGE
John Calvin (1509-1564) was a French Protestant theologian, an important figure in the spread of the philosophy of the Reformation.
Protestant Reformation was the religious and cultural movement in the 16th century that splintered European Catholicism. Historians date its start in 1517, upon the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, which criticized Catholic indulgences. The various figures featured on the Reformation Wall challenged the authority of the Catholic Pope and the Catholic establishment’s ability to define Christian practice.
Protestant Reformation was essentially founded upon the belief that the Bible, not tradition, should be the sole source of spiritual authority. Luther, Calvin and other reformers were one of the first theologians to skilfully use the printing press to spread their ideas across Europe. They also argued for religious power to be redistributed towards the pastors, the local religious community leaders.
From 1936 to his death in 1564, Calvin was exiled in Geneva. During his time in the city, he established very strict rules on morality, such as bans on swearing, gambling, sex and even dancing during weddings. Absence from worship was also heavily penalized. Getting caught committing adultery or homosexuality often resulted into getting capital punishment.
Protestant visitors at the time noted the exemplary behavior of the Gernevans. John Knox described Calvin’s Geneva as the perfect school of Christ and modeled the Scottish Protestant Reformation after Calvin’s practices in the city.
Calvin’s radical teachings didn’t initially go well with Geneva’s natives at the time, and he was even briefly expelled from the city between 1538 and 1541. But when he returned, he gained enough power and organized a consistory of Protestant pastors and elders to enact a wide range of disciplinary measures through ecclesiastical teachings.
In 1559, he set up the Geneva Academy to train people for ministerial positions and secular leadership. During the age of Enlightenment, this place became a breeding ground for thinkers and illustrious scholars, and opened up to new disciplines, such as the physical and natural sciences, law and philosophy.
In the midst of rapid social and political changes in the 19th century, it officially let go of its ecclesiastical allegiances, set up a medical faculty and effectively became a university.
Who are the figures of the Reformation Wall?
These are some of the figures that helped facilitate the spread of Protestant Reformation across Europe.
From left to right:
- William Farel (1489–1565) - Founder of many Reformed churches across Switzerland and helped Calvin train missionaries.
- John Calvin (1509–1564) - The father of Calvinism and trained missionaries across Europe to spread the ideology of the Protestant Reformation.
- Theodore Beza (1519–1605) - A disciple of Calvin and eventually his successor in Geneva. He would later spread Reformed theology across France.
- John Knox (1513–1572) - He studied under Calvin and founded the Presbyterian Church in Scotland.
From left to right:
- Frederick William of Brandenburg (1620 – 1688) - A staunch Calvinist, Protestant monarch and part of the rising merchant class.
- William the Silent (1533 – 1584) - A major figure in the Eighty Years’ War (1566–1648), the war for the Netherlands’ (a country that embraced Reformed ideology) independence from Spain.
- Gaspard de Coligny (1519 – 1572) - A French nobleman who was a disciplined Huguenot leader in the French Wars of Religion, and provided refuge towards reformed protestants experiencing religious persecution.
From left to right:
- Roger Williams (1603 – 1684) - An English Baptist theologian and one of the first abolitionists at the time. He was also a staunch advocate of the separation between Church and State.
- Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1657) - The extremely controversial Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England and an intensely religious man, who held a tolerant view towards Protestant sects during his time (and had a near-genocidal tendencies in the way he treated Irish Catholics).
- Stephen Bocskay (1557 – 1607) - A Hungarian noble and a Protestant who went to war against the Habsburgs, which tried to force Roman Catholicism on Hungary.
Controversies surrounding the Reformation Wall
The Reformation Wall is not without its controversies, largely due to its ecclesiastical imagery and for what it represents.
In fact, Borgeaud used political, rather than religious, will to get the Reformation Wall constructed. At the beginning of the 20th century, Protestantism was already no longer the majority religion in Geneva, and there was already a clear political stance towards the separation between Church and State.
Borgeaud argued that Calvin’s enduring legacy was more political and legal than anything else. As Genevan writer Luc Weibel argued in his book Le Monument, The concept of the city-state by John Calvin based on republican principles took hold of Geneva in the 20th century.
That said, many argue that the symbolism behind these statues remains a big problem to this very day. For one, the Reformation Wall only has men, and they’re all attired in religious or war clothing.
There have been acts of vandalism across the years due to the very nature of what the Reformation Wall represents. In March 2019, feminist activists can-sprayed the base of the statues: Where are the women?
A similar incident occurred several months after, in which LGBTQ+ activists poured different colors of paint that symbolized the Pride flag.
Does the Reformation Wall represent the austere Protestantism during Calvin’s time that is perceived by many as paternalistic and even homophobic?
Whatever your views on the subject may be, next time that you walk across Parc des Bastions, especially during Christmas when it’s particularly festive, at least you’ll now know who the figures of the Reformation Wall are.