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A Review of Building Codes: The Aesthetics of Calvinism in Early Modern Europe

In the midst of persecution, how can the Christian continue to witness in his calling?

  • Byron Snapp,
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In the midst of persecution, how can the Christian continue to witness in his calling? This question confronted Huguenot architects and artisans in the mid and late 16th century. In this fascinating study Catharine Randall explains how Calvinists visibly incorporated faith into their design and construction of buildings for Catholic rulers.

Throughout the book, we see how these artisans were influenced by Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin wrote of the importance of applying faith to all of life. He, additionally, developed the doctrine of God building His church in time and space by the calling of the elect to Himself. He spoke of the working of the Holy Spirit within the inner man reconstructing the saved increasingly in the likeness of Christ. The Christian artisans sought to apply these principles in the field of architecture. They sought to redeem space for God’s glory.

In these pages Randall traces the lives of several builders including Bernard Palissy, Philibert de L’Orme, Jean Bullant, and Jacques Androuet du Cerceau. These men lived during the Wars of Religion, which lasted from l562–l685.

Calvinists did not have a voice in politics in this era. They spoke powerfully in their craftsmanship. Calvin’s contemporary, Palissy, is an excellent example. He worked for years as architect for the King. He served such personages as Catherine de Medici and Henry IV. He deliberately worked defects into his pottery to reflect the fact of a fallen world. Palissy and others, being people of the Word, saw the importance of explaining what their work conveyed. Sometimes he designed gardens that included a small wilderness area nearby. This conveyed any number of Biblical teachings, including reflection on the first garden and evidences of the effects of the Fall. The designed garden pointed to the dominion mandate given by God to Adam and Eve.

Some Calvinists built weak beams and columns into Catholic structures. These were covered with ornate designs and additions. Symbolically this construction manifested the weakness of Catholic theology and its stress on outward image. As the excessive ornamentation wore away, the structural areas could be seen. As Randall notes, architectural critics, who had no Calvinistic worldview, could not understand the reasoning behind the Christians’ activity.

Scripture verses would often be included on the interior of a building. Calvinists did not expect Catholics to complain about the verses because it would be a complaint against the Bible itself. However, Calvinists were careful to use verses that reflected their perspective. Fellow Calvinists walking into the building would recognize that a Huguenot had built that structure.

Randall draws our attention to a number of Huguenot architectural texts. She provides quotes and summaries that give the reader an understanding of their meaningful work. Numerous visual explanations are included with the text.

This is a worthwhile volume. It provides insight into Huguenot thinking and practice. Additionally, the reader can gain a greater appreciation of the fact that architecture is not a neutral area in God’s sight. Here, first and second generation Calvinist architects incorporated a Christian worldview based on their cultural constraints. Today the Christian worldview may be worked out differently. Anyone who reads this volume can reflect on how to convey Christian beliefs in his calling.

This is a scholarly book but one that is well worth reading. It is a beneficial read because of its substantive content, its expression of Christian worldview thinking, and its examples of how laity fearlessly expressed faith in a time of great personal danger.

Randall’s writing style allows those who are not architects (like myself) to profitably read the results of her research.

  • Byron Snapp

Byron Snapp is a graduate of King College (B.A.) and Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div.). He was Associate Pastor at Calvary Reformed Presbyterian Church, Hampton, Virginia, from 1994 until his retirement in December 2014. He is a native of Marion, Virginia.  He has had pastorates in Leakesville, Mississippi, and Gaffney, South Carolina.  He served as Assistant Pastor in Cedar Bluff, Virginia prior to his ministry at Calvary Reformed. He has served as editor of the Presbyterian Witness and was a contributor to A Comprehensive Faith and Election Day Sermons. He is currently a member of Westminster Presbytery in the PCA. He and his wife Janey have 3 children and several grandchildren. 

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