On a quiet spot on the outskirts of Geneva, just above the neighbouring bustle of the hospital, stands a memorial, between Beausejour and Roseraie. The Roseraie inscription says “On 27 October 1553, Michel Servet de Villeneuve d’Aragon died on the stake” while the Beausejour side reads: ”We, respectful and grateful children of Calvin, our great reformer but condeming an error that was that of his century, and deeply attached to freedom of conscience… built this expiatory monument, on 27 October 1903.”
The infrequent passer-by is unlikely to pay too much notice. It is only for those who know about Servetus that this atonement memorial may mean something. A near-by street also honours him, the sign reads: Michel Servet (1511-1553, Spanish physician).
Quite by chance, I had discovered the memorial a few years ago, while a Geneva resident. Sufficiently intrigued by the double reference to Calvin and to freedom of conscience, I had researched the fate of the Spaniard.
This time around, on a visit to Geneva, I was deliberately looking for the memorial, the location of which I only vaguely remembered. I ended up having a bit of a hard time finding it. Assuming Rue Michel Servet would be a logical spot, I walked up and down the street, explored the Plateau de Champel, as Champel is generally indicated as the place where Servetus was burnt at the stake, along with his books. No mention of the execution was to be found on the Plateau.
From there I walked again along the Michel Servet street which winds it way down from the Plateau to the Geneva hospital.
After a little more exploring and walking back and forth, on a side street, I finally spotted the memorial, inaugurated on the 350th anniversary of the Spaniard’s death.
Servetus’ execution marked the end of a long theological dispute between him and Calvin, at a time when autodafes, and the burning of heretics, were the order of the day throughout Europe.
The Spanish physician was the first to describe and publish about pulmonary circulation. A true humanist, in addition to his medical pursuits, Servetus’ studies and research ranged from astrology, geography, jurisprudence to theology.
Born in Villanueva, Aragon, the son of a Catholic notary and a mother whose Jewish ancestors were conversos, Miguel Serveto early on studied Greek, Hebrew and Latin and later went to the University of Toulouse to study law.
After having worked in the service of a Franciscan monk, Quintana, who became Charles V’s confessor, Servetus joined the Protestant reformers in Basel, then moved to Strasbourg. There, by the time he was twenty, he published De trinitatis erroribus (On the Errors of the Trinity), which was followed by two more essays in which Servetus, based on his direct readings of the Bible, rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Servetus also thought that the Trinity dogma made it more difficult to Jews and Moors to convert Christianism.
The books were confiscated. The Spanish Inquisition ordered that he be questioned while warnings were issued against him in several Protestant towns. Servetus fled to Paris where he entered medical school under the name of Michel de Villeneuve. There he met Jean Calvin, a fellow student. Both started engaging in long theological debates, which continued through correspondence after Calvin had to flee Paris, as he was suspected of promoting reformist ideas.
When Michel de Villeneuve was given the position of physician to Archbishop of Vienne Pierre Palmier, he settled in the French city, south of Lyons. While he practised medicine, he also continued his theological research and wrote his major work: Christianismi Restitutio (The Restoration of Christianity). Servetus sent the book to Calvin who responded by sending a copy of his own book: Institutio Christianae Religionis (Institutions of the Christian Religion), which Servetus returned covered with annotations. After a few more exchanges, Calvin stopped the correspondence.
Meanwhile, in Vienne, Michel de Villeneuve was suspected of being the author of the Restitutio and denounced as a heretic. Once his correspondence with Calvin had been produced as evidence, he was soon identified as Servetus. He was arrested by the Roman Catholic authorities in April 1553, and escaped from prison three days following his arrest. On 17 June, the French Inquisition convicted him of heresy and he was sentenced to death by slow burning. The same day, in Vienne, his effigy and his books were burned in abstentia.
While fleeing to Italy, Servetus stopped in Geneva where he was soon recognized and arrested. Following a consultation with four other Swiss cities, the Protestant authorities condemned him: there too he was sentenced to be burned at the stake. Calvin unsuccessfully tried to convince fellow Reformer Farel that the sentence should be executed through decapitation. On 27 October 1553, Servetus perished in the flames, his books attached to his body by a chain.
While many Protestants approved of the execution, some in Basel and other parts spoke against the decision to put heretics to death. The most vocal of them was theologian Sébastien Castellion who in 1562 said: Killing a man is not defending a doctrine, it is killing a man.
Miguel Serveto’s legacy has become emblematic of the fight for freedom of thought and freedom of conscience.
It is only at the very beginning of the 20th century that monuments were raised to commemorate Servetus. The Champel memorial was inaugurated in 1903 in the presence of representatives from France. The Geneva memorial being deemed insufficient by the Comite du monument Michel Servet, in 1908, a statue was commissioned, but the Geneva authorities did not authorize its installation. It was then decided to donate the statue to the town of Annemasse, in France, just on the other side of the border.
Thanks to an international fund-raising effort, another monument was inaugurated in 1911 in Vienne. An October 22, 1911 New York Times article describes how Americans and “delegates from every civilized country of the globe” attended the inauguration of yet another statue to commemorate the victim of intolerance.
Servetus’ story continues as, at the request of the Vichy Government, the Annemasse monument was destroyed in 1941. The French resistance later organized a wreath-laying ceremony dedicated to Michel Servet, the first victim of fascism. The monument was finally re-erected in 1960. On the pedestal, an inscription reads:
“The arrest of Servetus in Geneva, where he did neither publish nor dogmatize, hence he was not subject to its laws, has to be considered as a barbaric act and an insult to the Right of Nations”. Voltaire
In Geneva, the 2009 official commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth did not mention Servetus…