Thursday, December 12, 2013
Geneva: December 10, 2013
I try to maintain a regular schedule of Wednesday publication, but there are times, as for example when I find myself climbing into an airplane in Geneva midmorning of a Wednesday, when sticking to schedule would be more in the genre of electronic athleticism than of journalistic virtue.
This visit to Geneva was my first in more than fifty years. On my last stay there my mission was to seek out an illuminated manuscript of the Roman de la Rose for work on my doctoral dissertation in preparation. My companion then was my newly married bride and life-partner. My companion of the past few days was our younger son Luke, now himself a doctor of philosophy and the father of a young son. Quite a lot can happen in half a century.
Like his mother, Luke too is a splendid companion of the road. A few years ago we visited Lisbon together. That was a memorable trip, but I shall remember our three days together in the Alps as even more rewarding.
If you have arrived from Europe at JFK or Newark any time recently you might be interested in how they do things in Geneva. In the immaculate luggage hall there is a machine that dispenses tickets for free train rides to the center of the city, good also for a transfer to any of the frequent buses or trams that radiate out from Cornavin Station in all directions including almost necessarily the direction of your hotel. Once at the hotel the clerk hands you, along with your key, a pass good for free public transport for the duration of your stay. I cannot deny the truth of what many tourists also notice—the place is very expensive--but you still have the feeling people actually want you to be there. So, yes, you may have to take out a bridge loan to cover lunch, but it’s a really nice lunch.
Geneva is relatively small, with many beautiful features, and it is so eminently walkable that we never even used our free bus passes. There is lots of clean, fresh water dramatically channeled for visual effect, and a large artificial geyser springing from the lake, beyond which rises Mont Blanc in all its majesty.
Walking and water were perhaps the trip’s unifying themes. One of the most prized treasures of the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire is a great altarpiece made for the city’s cathedral by Konrad Witz in the 1440s. This magnificent work of art was attacked by Protestant iconoclasts in the sixteenth century, broken apart, and severely damaged. But unlike their more enthusiastic brethren in the Low Countries, the Swiss Calvinists did not utterly destroy the despised relics of Gothic piety. The broken bits were gathered together and stored in a civic warehouse where, long forgotten or ignored, they survived into our more happily ecumenical age. Witz’s altarpiece has been almost miraculously restored through the skill and technology of modern museum science.
Four large panels have been preserved. In my opinion the most striking is the “Miraculous Catch of Fish”. The story is told twice in the gospels—in Luke (cap. 5) and John (cap. 21)—and in significantly different forms. In the latter it is presented as one of Jesus’s post-Resurrection appearances. The basic “plot” is this. The disciples--many of whom were actual fishers of fish before they became fishers of men—are plying their piscatorial trade without luck until Jesus tells them where, precisely, to cast their nets. Then they catch a huge haul. There is a particularly striking fact about John’s version—entirely aside from the failure of Jesus’s intimate disciples at first to recognize him—and that is its curious numerical specificity. The fisherman’s net is so full that it tests the tensile strength of the net’s webbing. But John doesn’t say anything so indeterminate as that they caught a lot of fish or scores of fish, or whatever. He says they caught one hundred and fifty-three fish. It’s as though in the story of the “Feeding of the Five Thousand” there were an editorial note saying that the actual number was 4,996.
One hundred and fifty-three is an odd number in more senses than one, and medieval exegetes marshaled their remarkable powers of ingenuity in attempts to explicate its hidden meaning. The results of their efforts might one day provide the materials for another essay. Konrad Witz’s remarkable panel painting is satisfied with the more obvious and literal theme of divine plenitude, the bounteously given fruits of soil and water. In that context, I realized as I walked with a beloved son along the water’s edge, that the Lake of Geneva can be no great spiritual distance from the Lake of Genneseret. How little could I know in 1962 of the fullness of providential possibility. Another watery scriptural text came to my mind—one that was a favorite of a long-departed grandmother. Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.