Reforming Our Picture of Calvin

Center Art Gallery Helps Celebrate Calvin’s 500th

An exhibit on John Calvin is now on display in the Center Art Gallery, continuing the yearlong festivities celebrating the 500th anniversary of the famed Reformer’s birth.

The exhibit, titled “Picturing the Reformer: Images of John Calvin,” includes many depictions of Calvin, but visitors can expect more than portraits.

While the show features several portraits of Calvin and panels that give a brief history of Calvin’s life, visitors may also expect to find books, medals, coins, stamps, figurines, ribbons, pill boxes, plaques, and a plethora of other Calvin memorabilia.

But visitors may be surprised to find a coin with the face of one of Calvin’s famed enemies, Michael Servetus, who was convicted and burned at the stake for heresy.

Some scholars still debate Calvin’s involvement in Servetus’s execution, but the exhibit is “not intended to defend Calvin,” according to Professor Karin Maag, Director of the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies, which helped set up the show in conjunction with the Center Art Gallery.

The show is about the impact of John Calvin more than anything else, according to Maag, and the wide range of artifacts are evidence of this impact, regardless of whether one has a positive or negative view of the man.

While the Catholics venerate saints, “Reformers are the closest thing to saints for Protestants,” said Maag.

Calvin College students and faculty may humorously recall one particular image of John Calvin on the college campus: a portrait of the Reformer hung in the Fine Arts Center (there is another in the Meeter Center) in which Calvin holds with his thumb and index finger in a V pointing upward at an odd angle, a gestured often parodied by students and in Chimes.

Maag hopes the exhibit will be a “refresher”for students and members of the community who are interested in Calvin’s life, and while she says Calvin College is not trying to “overdose” people on Calvin this anniversary year, it is “important for an institution to learn its roots.”

Maag also pointed out that Calvin College has been put on the map as one of the central locations for the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, up there with places like Geneva, Switzerland.

The exhibit includes an image of the only drawing of Calvin known to have been made during his lifetime: a pen and ink caricature drawn by one of Calvin’s students, Jacque Bourgouin.

“Draw pictures of your professors,” Maag joked, “It might survive and be the only memory we have of them.”

Another feature of the show is a brief history of the heart in the hand seal, which may have been used by Calvin in his letters, although there is only one confirmed instance where he used it.

A special lecture on the history of the icon titled “My Heart I Offer: Reflections on the Calvin Seal” by Barbara Carvill, emeritus Professor of German, was held Friday, October 30, to explore the meaning of the seal further than the exhibit does.

The show, which opened October 16 and runs until November 14, appropriately falls during the same time of year as Reformation Day, October 31st.

Reformation Day activities coincided with the exhibit, including an open house at the Meeter Center, a special Reformation Day service in the Seminary Chapel, and a concert by the Boston Camerata in the College Chapel that evening.