Fred Sanders notes that today is the anniversary (in fact, the 450th anniversary) of John Calvin’s death in 1564. What to say, almost half a millennium on?
In 1906, C. G. McCrie published a book containing the portraits from Theodore Beza’s Icones in which, in addition to the images themselves, he gave a biographical sketch of various and sundry reformers, which replaced what he called “Beza’s vague, and at times vapid, declamations in prose and verse” (xiv). His own, he claims, are impartial. The reader may judge for himself the accuracy of these assessments; we report, you decide, and all that.
In any event, I’m going to share his account of Calvin’s death.
Labours on such a scale and so exhausting could not fail to tell on a constitution never strong, and latterly very fragile. In the beginning of 1564 a complication of bodily troubles overtook Calvin. On February 6th in that year he preached his last sermon. Although he lingered for some months, enduring the severest agony without a murmur, and discharging such duties as disease and weakness left him strength to perform, the end came on the evening of May 27th, when the wearied worker and sufferer quietly expired in the arms of his faithful friend, colleague, and biographer, Beza, being not quite fifty-five years of age. The event was briefly chronicled in the Consistorial Register thus: ‘Went to God, Saturday, the 27th .’ Over the grave in Plain-palais – about five hundred paces outside the city – they raised no monument to tell the ages to come who reposed in this spot, and what he had done for Christendom. In this they fulfilled Calvin’s own wishes, who had enjoined that he should be buried ‘after the customary fashion,’ and that fashion was that no monument should be raised over any grave, however illustrious the deceased might be. A pine-tree and a stone of about a foot square inscribed with the letters ‘J. C.’ mark the spot where Calvin’s body perhaps reposes, for it is only a tradition. (pp. 143–4)
Beza’s short poem in his own Icones deals with this anonymous burial. As I said above, the reader may evaluate vapidity on his own; I will include the poem as Beza’s tribute to Calvin. He was, after all, his dear friend.1
Romae ruentis terror ille maximus,
Quem mortuum legent boni, horrescunt mali,
Ipsa a quo potuit virtutem discere virtus,
Cur adeo exiguo ignotoquein cespite clausus
Calvinus lateat, rogas?
Calvinum assidue comitata modestia vivum,
Hoc tumulo manibus condidit ipsa suis.
O te beatum cespitem tanto hospite!
O cui invidere cuncta possint marmora!
Calvin, that greatest terror of Rome rushing down to ruin,
over whom, dead, good men grieve, wicked men shudder,
from whom virtue herself was able to learn virtue –
do you ask why he lies buried, enclosed in ground
so slight and unknown?
Modesty, having continually accompanied Calvin as a man,
herself has buried him with her own hands in this tomb.
O you ground blessed by so great a guest!
O [you] whom all marble monuments could envy!