Genève médiévale I: beneath the cathedral

Firstly I should apologise for the longer-than-usual interval preceding this post; as you will see, it needed photos, and unfortunately my processing of photos is also backlogged…. Anyway, the background to this is that last year I had reason to pay several visits to Geneva. These were not for medieval studies, though I did wind up finishing what since July I’ve been hoping would be my next article during one, but you can’t stop a medievalist from medievalising just because he is become a temporary tourist, as I’m sure you can imagine. This is not to say that some purely touristic impulses did not overcome me…

The Jura mountains, photographed from a TGV in the rain

The Jura mountains, photographed from a TGV in the rain, and medievalist only in as much as some famous Christians lived out here once

… and even the actual work I did was kind of touristic…

Stairway into the Biblothèque de l'Université de Genève

Stairway into the Biblothèque de l’Université de Genève, about ten times smaller than my current university library but also at least that many times classier

… but of what I did there the thing that is most relevant for the blog was to visit the cathedral. Now this is well worth doing for several reasons, the most obvious being that it’s rather beautiful and in a lovely part of the city, but the next most obvious being that, like the Palau Comtal which became the Corts in Barcelona, there has been a lot of digging beneath it and the site has been kept open for visitors to walk around in! It’s tremendous.

Open-plan display of the archæological site beneath Saint-Pierre de Genève

Open-plan display of the site, standing in the old eighth-century cathedral’s walls looking east to the crypt of the Romanesque one I think

It is also very extensive. I went twice, in the end, because on the first trip both my and my companion’s cameras ran out of battery, something that had happened to her on her previous trip. Something down there does not wish to be photographed, but we managed in the end. Each time it took a couple of hours to get round. This is basically because there is just a lot of history down there. You may just recall from a Leeds report I did a while back that Geneva Cathedral has a very long archæological sequence under it; there were once three separate ‘cathedrals’ in the same complex, two probably fourth-century to sixth-century and one eighth-century, with a separate bapistery out at the end, which were collectively replaced by a single Romanesque building around 1000 (of course) and then a Gothic one which forms the basis of what now stands. There was also an extremely posh episcopal palace just uphill which lasted until some point in the developments I can’t now recall.

Mosaic pavement in the bishop's residence in the cathedral complex now under Saint-Pierre de Genève

Mosaic pavement in the bishop’s residence

The two big ones of course intercut not only each other but all three of the previous ones, and the Romanesque one adds to the pain by having been constructed with three different floor levels, the choir’s being raised well above the nave’s so as to give clearance for a kind of mezzanine crypt. The stratigraphy of that is bad enough for your head when you’re standing in it, but what I didn’t initially know is that there are even earlier remains, because not only was the whole complex built over Roman remains of the third and fourth century but the reason there was stuff here at all is a high-status burial of the third century whose occupant is still partly down there. All of this obviously intersects in the visible remains, so although the site uses different coloured tags to distinguish phases, when you’re looking at somewhere like this:

Intercutting strata with date markers in the archæological site of Saint-Pierre de Genève

One of the messier spots of intercutting

… it’s still not very easy to follow. Of course, there are remains of at least three periods in all parts of the site and often more, all cutting through each other, so plotting a route through it that aids understanding is pretty difficult. The recommended one pursues an uneasy compromise between chronology and contiguity, so that while it starts you with the earliest cathedral, in order to get to the next one it has to take you across the Romanesque nave, which it therefore explains, then up to the earlier baptisteries…

Excavated remnants of a sequence of baptisteries beneath Saint-Pierre de Genève

The various remnants of the various baptisteries between the two earliest cathedrals

… by which time you’re almost next to the ‘Allobrogian’ burial…

The supposedly-Allobrogian burial at the east end of the archæological site of Saint-Pierre de Genève

The supposedly-Allobrogian burial at the east end of the site

… which you get to via a selective sculptural display picked from the whole sequence, via which you also return…

Carolingian-period sculpture recovered from the archæological site of Saint-Pierre de Genève

I’m sure you’ll forgive me, but I only seem to have a photo of the Carolingian-period sculpture, which must of course have been a later addition to one or other of the buildings then on the site

… on your way to the second cathedral of the sixth century, via unsigned Roman remains that the earliest cathedrals did not overwrite…

Hypocausts between the baptisteries and southern cathedral remains beneath Saint-Pierre de Genève

Hypocausts between the baptisteries and southern cathedral remains

and then you come around a wall and find that what you are now looking at is the water supply for the baptisteries, now on the other side of the wall you’ve just reached!

Cisterns that once supplied the baptisteries beneath Saint-Pierre de Genè

Cisterns supplying the baptisteries (presumably one after the other); note unexplained spolia beyond

After that it takes you via the episcopal palace and then suddenly the exit appears, leaving only a somewhat desultory array of sculpture that is either functioning as an advertisement, since it is visible from outside the entrance, or as a holding bay for stuff they couldn’t place.

Sculptural remains in the entrance to the archæological site of Saint-Pierre de Genève

Sculptural remains in the entrance to the site

In terms of the route, I’m not sure how they could do it better—the remains are where the buildings were—but it’s very confusing. Remembering where everything else is in relation to where you are now, still less how much of it was there at any given point, is almost impossible. I was very glad I’d heard Chantal Bielman’s paper, basically, and had someone there who’d been before to explain, or I would have been very lost.

Intercutting layers and structures beneath the cathedral of Saint-Pierre de Genève

For example, if you look at this, the free-standing blocky pier at the centre must be from the Romanesque cathedral, which was partly incorporated into the Gothic one, and that helps one work out that the flagstones around its base are also the Romanesque floor levels. The big thick pier next to it is current structure. Directly before it, however, we have the font from one of the earlier baptisteries, with another one next to it which must be either earlier or later, and what the walls beside the viewing platform are I just could not tell you…

Stratigraphic diagram from the archæological site of Saint-Pierre de Genève

The stratigraphic colour scale used for the markers, but not the signage and reconstruction drawings, in the site

Now, good signage would help a lot with this. There is a very useful composite maquette at the entrance, which could ideally be coloured in the colours they use for the different phases, but which could also be repeated on all the signs so that you could see what bit of that layout you were now seeing. The actual signage is quite informative, and mostly very well-translated, but is very hard to relate to the ruins as one sees them. There are reconstruction drawings on each sign, but they can obviously only represent one phase. They don’t always do this from the same perspective as the viewer now has, however, and the actual remains one can see are often almost impossible to locate in the drawing.

Signage for the "monks' cells" (cellules des clercs) outside the oldest cathedral at the site of Saint-Pierre de Genève

Signage for the "monks’ cells" (cellules des clercs) outside the oldest cathedral

Actual remains of the monks' cells attached to the southern cathedral beneath Saint-Pierre de Genève

Actual remains of the cells, viewed from round the corner from the sign as the drawing there actually reflects

I do feel mean for criticising what was obviously a really difficult job to do because of the fantastic complexity of the site, but precisely because of that, the visitor really needs all the help they can get, and colour-coding of the signage might have helped. I have been told that the audio guide, which I steadfastly refused to use because it cost extra money and because I hate the things, helped a lot, and it was keyed to individual locations so one didn’t have to follow a sequence with it, but of course in programming it they couldn’t know where exactly one was standing or what way one was looking… Perhaps I have just been working in museums too long not to see where improvements could be made, but I hope some day to come back and find this site more clearly explained.

Remains of a threshing floor belonging to the southern cathedral in the complex beneath saint-Pierre de Genève

Remains of a threshing-floor outside the oldest cathedral

That all said, it is still a fantastic site. The advantage of the complexity is that if one does stand in the right place for a while and slowly figure it out, you get a very deep impression of how each layer of the present not only rests on but interferes with the past and how it can be reconstructed. Perhaps a metaphor, eh?

Sarcophagus in the archæological site of Saint-Pierre de Genève

Sarcophagus, whose origin was explained but I didn’t record it, sorry

Smaller finds displayed in the archæological site beneath Saint-Perre de Genève

Smaller finds arranged in a single display for chronological comparison, but with no context data alas

Roman bronze coin hoard found in the excavations at Saint-Pierre de Genève

And finally one for the numismatists, a Roman bronze coin hoard in its natural state, that is, mostly a corroded lump…

The overall interpretation is also well done, so although working out where you are in the story and what of it you’re looking at is bewildering, that overall story is fairly clear. We start, as I said, with a high-status ‘barbarian’ burial, with a town collected around it, slowly moving uphill and in the fourth century some church arrived, becoming a cathedral by the sixth century (when King Sigismund of Burgundy, who had his main residence in Geneva, was hypothetically involved) and by which time the second cathedral was established to the east with what was already a sequence of baptisteries to the north that were supplemented and finally replaced by a third cathedral in the eighth century.

Maquette of the fully-realised pre-Romanesque cathedral complex at Saint-Pierre de Genève

Maquette of the fully-realised pre-Romanesque cathedral complex

Now, let’s just pause there a minute because this is where the story gives me trouble. These three cathedrals are supposed to have been segregrated by function. The oldest one was the actual place of worship; the second one is supposed to have been a place for the instruction of the faithful; and the third was focused on the veneration of relics (they say ‘worship’ in the signage, but this seems just to be a translation issue since French ‘culte’ would cover both); certainly, it is focused on a high-effort burial in the centre of the apse whence sixth-century fabrics were recovered around the body when it was dug in 1979.

The high-status burial beneath the apse of the eastern funerary cathedral in the complex beneath Saint-Pierre de Genève

The high-status burial beneath the apse of the eastern funerary cathedral in the complex

It’s the second, southern cathedral that bothers me, the supposed teaching cathedral. Now, let’s leave aside the point that probably only one of these can count as a cathedral at once, in as much as it was where the bishop’s seat was; why on earth would one build a functioning church, with an altar and a choir and everything, solely to teach people? The diagnosis, as far as I could understand it, comes from the fact that the building was distinguished by an ambo, a kind of stall in the middle of the nave with access only from the presbitery via an extended walled walkway.

The ambo in the southern cathedral of the complex beneath Saint-Pierre de Genève

This is hard to photograph, because one really needs a more vertical perspective, sorry; see the maquette above, at the right, for what they think they have here

This has been read basically as a lecturer’s stance, but even with the most one-way, rigid, rote-learning teaching style I find it hard to imagine a classroom in which the teacher would not sometimes want to get out and see what the students were doing. This seems to me far more like a preaching space. This makes me think more in terms of a public church built to allow the canons of the cathedral to appropriate the older northern building for their own liturgy, since we have cells that would have belonged to such persons attached to it, though it must be added to that that the episcopal palace is linked to the southern, not the northern cathedral and I don’t know which side of the dispute I’m setting up here that would support.

Fallen columns in the double ambulatory in the Romanesque crypt beneath Saint-Pierre de Genève

Fallen columns in the double ambulatory in the Romanesque crypt

Anyway. I have many quibbles but the site is tremendous and well worth the price of entry. As I say, it is very indicative of the way that people live on the past, in several senses, and I recommend a visit if you’re in Geneva very much. The actual cathedral is also rather fine, but photography in the nave is forbidden and I didn’t get to the tower till a subsequent trip. That will appear in due course!

An old slab incorporated into a wall of the northern cathedral in the complex beneath Saint-Pierre de Genève

An old slab incorporated into a wall of the northern cathedral

I would have liked to rest the discussion above on the site report, Charles Bonnet & Alain Peillex (edd.), Les fouilles de la cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Genève : les édifices chrétiens et le groupe épiscopal (Geneva 2012) but it was on sale at 120 Euros and I thought that was probably too much to invest in an argument for a blog-post. The site director did however do a shorter interim report in English, C. Bonnet, “The Archaeological Site of the Cathedral of Saint Peter (Saint-Pierre), Geneva” in Archaeology and the Christian Church, World Archaeology Vol. 18 (London 1987), pp. 330-340, and that’s quite handy.

8 responses to “Genève médiévale I: beneath the cathedral

  1. highlyeccentric

    Corrections: the audioguide doesn’t cost extra, you’re just stubborn. Also photography is allowed or at least I have tons of photos and I remember you taking photos inside- that’s how both our cameras ran out of battery. I think you took photos using my camera and I think you uploaded them to your netbook? Can resend if desired!

    • I have no interior photos of the body of the cathedral at all, even on the second trip where I do have many of the tower. I wonder if I just assumed I had some from the first time? I was now assuming that I had seen something prohibiting it. Anyway, probably a fair cop on the stubbornness.

  2. Hi Is there any idea however vague of where Gondebaud palace may have been. After all, princesses Chrona and Chlotilde did live in a palace, right? (probably a Roman villa by the lake) or some location close to the cathedral, right? Just like we may doubt that Aachen Dom/ Imperial chapel was for the plebs to enjoy, could it be possible that one of your churches was simply for the private use of the 6thC hoi-polloi?

    • I don’t have that knowledge, I’m afraid. Anything I could say would only be guesswork. But as long as I’m guessing, I would guess that someone who used the title magister militum would set up in a Roman official building, if he could find one. What was beyond the cathedral complex? That’s where I’d look…

  3. Reblogged this on Tome and Tomb.

  4. Pingback: Perhaps the finest Gothic cathedral in Switzerland | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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  6. Pingback: Genève médiévale II: atop the cathedral | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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