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Under Geneva's Cathedral

I had a scant hour of leisure and was already in Geneva's cathedral, so I followed the signs and spent it in the archeological site underneath the cathedral. To call it "underneath" isn't to do the site justice: it covers half again as much space as the cathedral above it does.

For years, this was a working dig. Only in the last six years has it opened as a seven-days-a-week museum site, beautifully presenting the physical layers of the site's - and Geneva's - earliest history, with audio-visual displays, catwalks close about and next to the site, occasional displays of selected finds, and good lighting. Commentary and most detail is provided by means of a hand-held self-prompted audio guide, which means that the site was, when I visited it on a January afternoon, extraordinarily quiet, even with a dozen or so other people scattered around on sometimes-creaking catwalks.

The site shows off everything from the remnants of the current cathedral's Gothic crypt, to the remains of three earlier cathedrals - going back to the third fourth century - and, even earlier, the remains of Roman-era buildings on the site. Little Geneva, for a time, marked the northern border of the Roman empire, with its bridge over the Rhône. The earliest residential complex in stone on the site brought in its drinking water by means of aqueduct. The current - and many previous - high altars of the cathedral above are still situated above the grave of an unknown local Allobrigian chief, as the archeologists discovered to their astonishment.

Several periods of underfloor heating mechanisms survive, including a hypocaust. Most of the early monks may have had small cells to live in, but they were small cells with underfloor heating! The extremely large mosaic floor - largely extant - which formed the base of a fifth-century bishop's welcome room, was also heated.

One of the aspects of the commentary which warmed the cockles of my heart was its modern historicity. One numbered commentary revolved around a model of early Geneva. The voice told me that it showed how much archeological evidence had uncovered in the last twenty years since this model was made. Then, it was assumed that the proto-city was built on top of the hill with a cluster of port buildings at the bottom and fields in between on the slopes; now, further digs have shown that the whole hillside was inhabited all the way down, with terracing.

There was one aspect of the site that I didn't understand. How could there have been three cathedrals on the site at once, all connected by an atrium? Three dedicated churches, sure - but three homes for three cathedra for a single bishop? I'm hoping it was a translation issue; or some major change in the structure of Christian hierarchy since the early Middle Ages.



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 10th, 2012 09:33 pm (UTC)
translation issue aside -- it sounds lovely!
Jan. 11th, 2012 01:28 pm (UTC)
Three chairs for the bishop! Hip hip hurrah!

...Ahem. Sorry. Couldn't resist...

(But you need to hear it in a posh British accent. I am available for active live punning.)
Jan. 11th, 2012 04:11 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the wonderful description!

I think double cathedrals were fairly common -- at least Aquileia and Trieste had them -- but three does seem to be overdoing it.

Was the oldest really 3rd century? (I need to go google the thing.)
Jan. 11th, 2012 10:22 pm (UTC)
How were double cathedrals used - still by one bishop?

No, I was wrong. The oldest is late 4th century. The third cathedral shows up in the 7th-8th century.
Jan. 11th, 2012 11:04 pm (UTC)
Well according to the font of all knowledge Wikipedia: "From the 8th to 10th centuries it was one of three cathedrals to coexist on the site. The present building has grown from a cathedral devoted to ecclesiastical use and an early Christian funerary cult; the other two structures, subsumed in the 12th century by the growth of the surviving building, were apparently for different uses, one for public sacraments and the other for church teachings."


Hard to say for sure, but it sounds like when the buildings co-existed they had separate uses and only one would have been an actual cathedral at a given time. Perhaps this archaeological paper that Wikipedia cites explains it (I don't have Jstor access): http://www.jstor.org/stable/124589

Note that apparently some bishoprics have two churches both acting as cathedrals for the bishop known as co-cathedrals (again according to Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Co-cathedral ). However they seem different from this case, since it looks like each co-cathedral is a full service affair not two buildings with different specialties.

Basically I skimmed this wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathedral so this is mostly guesswork.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )