Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Genève

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The Cathédrale Saint-Pierre stands at the highest point in Geneva in the Old Town. It’s been there for a long time, the present building dating from the 11th Century, although there has been a religious building on the site since the 4th Century. The Protestant theologian, John Calvin, who came from Geneva, used to preach in the Cathedral during the mid-16th century.

One of the books I’m reading at the moment (I always have several on the go) is The Secret Lives of Buildings: by Edward Hollis. In the book he describes how a number of well known buildings have evolved and changed over time. Living buildings have to adapt to new uses and even where their function largely remains unchanged, they are modified over time, extensions built, sections demolished, repairs undertaken. This can be clearly seen in the Cathedral. Different architectural styles have been used as the building was expanded, reflecting the change in fashion and technological developments.

Map from

The original building was Romanesque and from the outside, typical features of this architectural style can be seen – relatively small windows with rounded arches puncturing massive walls. But the chapel, which was added at a later date is classic Gothic with long tall lancet windows with more complex tracery, and buttresses supporting the walls.

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The Romanesque main structure with Gothic additions could also be seen when looking down over the nave from the top of one of the towers.2013-01-16 16.07.09

The West front of the Cathedral is built in yet another style – a large Neoclassical portico with six Corinthian columns supporting a triangular pediment. Built in the mid 18th Century this is completely different than the medieval styles that have been used to construct the rest of the building.

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This entrance replaced a plainer, more traditional Romanesque construction which can be seen in the following etching.


(Picture source: Cathedral website)

I’ve nothing against neo-Classical architecture – quite the contrary. But I didn’t really like the entrance. I think the neo-classical style jarred with the rest of the building – it was too different.

The eccentric design also includes two towers (which don’t match!) from the 13th Century and a spire added in 1895.

So the building is a really good illustration of how buildings grow and evolve. Although in this case no care has been taken to ensure the additions and alterations maintain a harmonious whole. It’s a real jumble of styles.

Inside, the Gothic style, with pointed arches and a high ribbed vault, dominated, as can be seen in this picture of the Nave. But the small Romanesque windows in the main walls, meant that the interior was quite gloomy and, consequently, my photographs, taken on my mobile phone, haven’t come out too well. The Gothic styling was, no doubt, the result of later modifications to the Romanesque structure.

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The cathedral was originally Catholic, but today it’s a Protestant church. Inside it;s relatively plain and austere reflecting the Calvinist ideology. The Calvinists stripped the cathedral of its altars, statues, paintings and furniture when they took it over in 1536. Only the stained glass windows and the Romanesque capitals on the stone columns remained.

The Cathedral is relatively small and unlike many of the large Gothic cathedrals I’ve visited in England, it doesn’t have a large fancy Quire separated from the Nave. So the clergy must be in much closer contact with the congregation. I guess that this again is a reflection of the Calvinist philosophy.

The small Quire is Gothic and is more ornate than the Nave, but still relatively plain.

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During the Reformation, the 14th-century Gothic Chapel of the Maccabees was used as a warehouse and then a lecture hall. It was reconsecrated in in 1878 and redecorated in a very lavish style and today provides a dramatic contrast to the austere main body of the Cathedral. It has ornate stained glass windows with some complex tracery

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The high ribbed ceiling is highly decorated with a colour scheme dominated by a bright blue.

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The door leading to the main body of the Cathedral is also highly decorated with patterns painted in bright colours

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There are some light hearted touches too, with small, carved gargoyles carved at the bottom of some of the wooden pillars.

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