Fiat Lux! St. Peter’s Lights Up

As the Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy began throughout the world, a specially-produced light show greeted pilgrims to Vatican City. The show included stunning photographs projected onto the façade and cupola of Saint Peter’s, taken from a repertoire of some of the world’s great photographers. The images were inspired by the themes of mercy, humanity, the natural world and climate change.

What do you think of this? Impressed at the stunning beauty, the jaw-dropping creativity, the amazing technology? Any misgivings about this? Are there tears of delight, feelings of deep awe? Curiosity about what’s going on at the Vatican and what all happened for this to come about?


  1. Hugely disappointed and baffled the the Vatican would allow the defacing of such a sacred and special place, especially given the apparent association the presenting organization has with population control groups

  2. I haven’t watched all of it yet, but I am perplexed by the notion that images of nature are a “profane use of a sacred building.” Isn’t God’s creation sacred too? I think it’s refreshing to see the Church engaging with a contemporary art form (not unlike what she did when she rebuilt St Peter’s actually). A little weird, a little edgy, but stimulating and beautiful too.

  3. Turning the facade of Saint Peter’s Basilica into a glorified billboard was tasteless in the extreme. I found it gruesome and offensive.

  4. I have no idea how this could be profane. The earth is crying out for healing on so many levels so that Church going people would think the voices of creatures are profane, the eyes of species looking right at humanity are profane, the dove flying through the pillars does not challenge people of faith to look at what we are doing to the planet …

    I am moved by this show and the voice of the planet crying for mercy is a great way to step through the earths door of mercy. When asked “what does the Chruch need today?” a high ranking Church official responded “drinking water.” It is time for people of faith to stop separating out the edifices of power as holier than than the scenes of a planet struggling to stay alive.

    To me I saw a Church reminding all people that if these animals don’t make it, ain’t nobody gonna make it. Mercy! For all. As Pope Benedict XVI so aptly and wisely said, “If you want peace, protect the creation.”

  5. As I watched it online and not at the square, the only problem I had was with the camera work: the camera, IMO, cut to the people/surrounding areas in the square, away from the illuminated images, way too much/too often. Otherwise, I enjoyed it alright, although not to the extent that made me (want to) cry over its beauty (as one of the curators of the event had predicted).

    As to the critiques posed by some folks, here and elsewhere, by golly, some people really will complain about anything.

    An aside: for those who are impatient like me, Repubblica put a time-lapse version of the show (most of it, it seems, minus all the shots of the people/square, to boost!) here:

  6. I’m not sure this is tacky. It’s a highly developed use of technology and a very successful integration of modern imagery into a historic façade. It doesn’t feel as disjointed to me as, say, the glass pyramid in the Louvre. I think it works.

    But I am sure it’s not a sacrilege or profanation. If images of animals and natural creation are defacing a sacred space… well then the defacement would be all the greater if humans enter sacred spaces since humans are capable of sin and evil in a way that animals and inanimate objects are not. Some folks need to reflect on their theology of Creation and of Incarnation. “And God saw that it was good.” Some folks seem to see that it is bad, evil, profane.


  7. I think it’s a fascinating and admirable use of technology in the service of the Church’s message.

    While I don’t consider accusations of tastelessness, tackiness, and “using St Peter’s as a billboard” to be unreasonable, I would ask those who are making them whether they would say the same if the media was used to illuminate a different encyclical, such as Redemptoris Mater or Ecclesia de Eucharistia. Personally, I’d be happy to be in the audience for those as well.

    At the same time, I suspect there is something about the combination of these contemporary photos/videos from nature being projected onto that sacred, 16th century façade that is striking in a way that projecting images of Mary or the liturgy wouldn’t offer. The Christian imagery is “expected” in this context; the natural images are not. The message is, “These two do not seem to ‘go together,’ but the point of Laudato Si is that in fact they do.”

  8. That display, sponsored by the World Bank and others who support abortion and contraception does not belong on St. Peter’s.

    Where is the encyclical from this Pope on abortion or the slaughter of Christians in the middle east and elsewhere?

    1. @Chip Stalter:
      It is worth noting that in the World Bank’s own account of its “Family Planning” efforts the Catholic Church is cast as a major “enemy.” I think this should at least give us pause.

      But, that said, given the wide range of the World Bank’s activities, many of which are entirely compatible with Catholic teaching, and the fact that the actual content of the light show does nothing to promote abortion or contraception, I am pretty sure that letting them fund the light show does not rise of the level of even remote material cooperation.

      And given Fr. Ruff’s desire not to have discussion sidetracked into matters that are not really connected to liturgy, I am willing to move on from the topic of the World Bank’s connection to abortion and contraception, at least in this forum.

  9. First of all, it strikes me that people who are shocked or think this is somehow irreverent are showing their ignorance. The projection-art form on facades of cathedrals has been going on for many, many years, with no appreciable ill effects or impious results. These are public events that use a great space to draw people in and edify them. I’ve seen it done with two great medieval churches in Reims (the cathedral and St. Remi), I’ve seen it in Amiens (very reverent crowds at all of them); it’s done at Chartres; it’s done at the cathedral of Milan; we’ve had it at Old St. Patrick’s here in New York for the anniversary of the archdiocese. Why not St. Peter’s? Projection art is no more a billboard than Bernini is an advertisement for marble.

    Second, it’s the creation story that is being presented visually. The thematic material is taken from, ahem, holy scripture. How is that profane?

    Third, the videos they have at the Rose Space Center here in NY dramatize the big bang, and rivet audiences with a godless narrative; if we don’t speak for Genesis, who will? The fundamentalists? If we don’t use all available art and ingenuity to “tell our story” to people today, yes in public places, we are going to be relegated to a museum. It’s already happening.

  10. Pope Francis has a gift for communicating with a wide audience, including a largely secular society. He has brought the faith to a wider audience and engendered goodwill toward the Church more than any other person in living memory. He must be doing something right!

    Many times throughout history the Church has used visual imagery to communicate with the masses, and I see this as a particularly successful chapter in that history. Perhaps those who see this event as “tasteless, gruesome, offensive” would prefer to keep our light under a bushel basket.

  11. Projection art is by no means limited to religious sites, by the way. Yet a 2012 article in the NY Times pointed out that the oldest-running festival of this art form has Catholic inspiration and roots:

    “One of the most prominent festivals dedicated to the art form is the long-running Fête des Lumières in Lyon. The tradition there of placing candles in household windows in honor of the Virgin Mary stretches back more than 150 years, and the modern incarnation of the festival began incorporating 3-D-mapping techniques in recent years.”

  12. Deacon – can we really find any organization that, in some way, may not be *perfect* in espousing the traditional catholic line? Yes, let’s not get into direct, indirect, etc. cooperation. In reality, everyone of us purchases, supports, pays into systems that do not meet the *perfect* traditional catholic line. (US taxes support the largest military in the world – bigger than the next 20 nations combined – wonder if this doesn’t in some way work against pro-life sensibilities if for no other reason than that it is a waste of resources for the common good)
    Suggest that we acknowledge that this innovative project was far from direct cooperation (it really does become a ridiculous discussion).

  13. I can’t help but wonder… if this had been about five years ago, permitted / promoted by Pope Benedict, would this crowd be as enamored of it?

    1. @John Drake:
      Pope Benedict was very strong on social issues, and I promoted him on that every chance I got! (That’s not all he was strong on, I hasten to add!)

    2. @John Drake:

      Likewise, if this had happened about five years ago, permitted/promoted by Pope Benedict, would that other crowd have been as critical of it?

      I confess with shame that my first reaction would probably have been, “An extravagant light show at the Vatican. How typical of the papacy of Benedict.”

      Then, had I shared my thoughts with others, say, on the internet, someone surely would’ve called me out on my rather knee-jerk reaction to Benedict’s doings, and gone on to explain the meaning and value of putting on such a show, notwithstanding certain issues that would/should give one pause, as Deacon Fritz said.

      At any rate, it’s a real shame that Pope Benedict’s strong stance on social issues, including his support for the environment, garnered so little attention in the world, seemingly always overshadowed by his other priorities.

  14. I don’t think it’s tacky, but I do have a misgiving – is it not ironic that this light show must have consumed a considerable amount of electricity? Perhaps the ends justify the means here, but I hope that most of the attendees at least took public transportation to get there. On the other hand, maybe the electricity was completely generated from the solar panels that Benedict had installed.

  15. “First of all, it strikes me that people who are shocked or think this is somehow irreverent are showing their ignorance.”

    This comment is insulting.

    I am European, Mrs. Ferrone. I’ve had far more first hand experiences of this phenomenon than what you have listed. I have never cared for the son et lumière productions. I’ve not seen one, across my years, that I felt did justice to either the building(s) or the narrative…both edifice & narrative suffered by being combined in such a way, in my opinion.

    Since the question was “What do think of this?”, it is opinion that was being sought…why do you denigrate those of a differing opinion? Or was I incorrect in assuming that the solicitation of our opinions was a sincere one?

    I think there are beautiful things that can be done with lighting that can enhance a building’s beauty and its distinctive artistic & architectural elements; I have seen it done beautifully. In Europe, we do many lovely things with the use of light — as we have for centuries: interior and exterior illuminations and the effective use of light & stained glass or in architectural design. These staged productions, using the building itself as a type of projection screen, are another matter.

    Wherever this has been done, be it with ecclesiastical or secular edifices, I find it aesthetically displeasing and an unhappy joining of art & technology. To me, it reeks of the gimmicky & kitschy; its main appeal, frankly, seems to tourists, tourism and crass commercialism.

    Unlike Fr. Ruff, I find I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre a pleasing and charming juxtaposition of old and new that I always seek out and enjoy when I am in Paris. It’s a matter of taste and preference, though; I appreciate those who have other views.

    Just as I would not accuse the Reverend Father of ignorance for his dislike of Pei’s creation, kindly do not accuse of ignorance people you have never met and do not know but who have a different aesthetic than yours, madam. It is most condescending.

    1. @Rod Hall:
      Mr. Hall,

      I am sorry you took offense at my comment. None was intended. Besides, since you neither expressed “shock” nor called it “irreverent” the comment was plainly directed not at you.

      I continue to think it is ignorant to regard this display as some sort of outrage to faith, an unprecedented intrusion upon the sacred precincts of St Peter’s Basilica, when similar things are done at other great churches around the world. It’s an art form. The content of the imagery-narrative (Creation) is religious. One may not like the form, but it’s not an outrage. Art is all over the Vatican. Some of it I like, some I don’t like. But it’s hardly a “profanation” to display religious art in public spaces. If you want to inveigh against things that are tacky, you might start with the hawkers of Padre Pio memorabilia around St. Peter’s Square. The tool of one person’s piety is another person’s aesthetic nightmare. You say these sound and light shows primarily appeal to tourists. Fair enough. Who do you think is in St. Peter’s Square?

      Second, I was not attempting to assemble an exhaustive list, only a suggestive one. You’ve been to more of these than the ones I’ve listed. Fine.

      Third, talking to people you have never met, sir, is in the nature of a blog.

      Let’s keep the St. Peter’s thing in proportion. It’s not like they’ve painted the dome over in bright pink and purple. One hour later, the display was finished. That’s what projection art is like.


  16. Not the place for this. On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we could have put up artwork of the Blessed Mother. Or images highlighting the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, or the unborn. I don’t think images of a lion, fish, a monkey, and a woman in a burqa should be projected on St. Peter’s.

  17. Just because this happened before on other churches doesn’t make it unobjectionable in those cases. The reasons for the objections became quite obvious, however, to those of us who weren’t aware of the shows before hearing about the one at St. Peter’s.

  18. As one of the thousands watching from the bottom end of the via della Conciliazione, I can testify

    (a) (for those like Doug O’Neill at #21 concerned about what transportation was used to get the spectators there) that many of those coming had to walk, because the crowds became so large that surrounding streets had to be closed;

    (b) that the two images which had the crowd gasping and wondering above all were (i) the candles, and (ii) the large, wing-flapping dove of peace, rather than the animals, birds or butterflies.

    Talking to people in the crowd, many were there who had not been present at, or not able to get to, the opening of the Holy Door in the morning, so this light display touched a significant different and not necessarily religious constituency of people.

  19. I saw a spectacular performance of Carl Orff’s Der Mond in which the actual Erfurt Cathedral because part of the set. St Peter’s is no more sacred. The sacredness of creation is being celebrated here.

  20. Oh, My….Such a fuss. All this verbiage over a stunning light of our home church at a time when more light is generated by home christmas trees, dinner tables with lit candles and windows with lights. So, what’s wrong that?

    Perhaps, the consternation originates with a hint of idolatry–worshipping buildings and not what the building houses. Rita Ferrone wrote that the lights were turned off after one hour. Thank you, Rita.

    So…such a fuss–one more indication that some people have too much time on their hands.

      Your logic is a bit strange, I think. Is the U.S. excused from its contribution to global warming, just because China is a bigger contributor? Frankly, I would support a campaign to get Americans to turn off all their Christmas lights. Burning candles contributes a tiny bit of CO2, but it’s negligible, and not really a valid comparison.

      To be fair, I don’t think those who object to the display are doing so as idol-worshipers. Any church is a sacred space, and should be treated as such. I don’t think that the display was a profanation, but the views of those who object ought to be respected, as long as their comments are respectful.

  21. Two things come to mind that I will share here. The first, my paraphrasing: Preach the Gospel at all times, use projection when necessary! To this point, if all creation is by God and is good, and if we believe that God uses all things for good, then I cannot find so much fault with this.

    Second, I will leave you with the words of someone present at the event, but before I do I’ll add this. I had little interest in the event either way. Until I read this post from theologian John Slattery writing at Daily Theology.

  22. This seems to me to be on par with the New Evangelization as well as Pope Benedict’s “Courtyard of the Gentiles.” Through art, the Church is encountering the culture and showing that believers and non-believers can interact and admire God’s goodness in creation.

    Many ancient churches and cathedrals have beautiful images of nature and animals (and even gargoyles) carved in stone on their facades and in their sanctuaries. It seems to me that projecting these images on the basilica is a 21st-century twist on a time-honored Catholic practice. And the projection of brilliant light also gives us a glimpse of the wonder of Christ, the Light of the World.

    1. @Patrick Gorman:

      This seems to me to be on par with the New Evangelization as well as Pope Benedict’s “Courtyard of the Gentiles.”

      Plus, to work with such godless organizations as the World Bank, to walk with them despite there being some seemingly irreconcilable differences, for the common good, sounds like classic Francis.

      @ Fran Rossi Szpylczyn:

      Thanks for sharing that link. Now I feel like I ought to re-watch the whole thing.

  23. I can certainly understand and respect the opinion of those who found it appropriate and moving. I can’t really say that it was in anyway inappropriate, but for me, I found it gimmicky and to me it seemed largely to function as “entertainment” which can run the risk of being at odds with the church. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that perhaps it is a new way for the church to teach and have dialogue with people, and my personal taste shouldn’t be a reason for them not to.

  24. Like Rod, I enjoy the glass pyramid in the Louvre courtyard.

    As to the “Son et lumières” shows, I don’t care for them. I have seen the one in Lyon on Dec. 8, and all I could think of were accounts by old-timers of how all window sills used to be lined up with candles, people flocked to the river side, and kneeled on the water’s edge – whether practicing Catholics or not, since such was the tradition – as the bishop’s boat came down the river. A very different flavor or events, and I do not find that electronic media, projected images and related art forms strike a chord in the same way as reality. I have seen powerpoint shows replacing the Good Friday processions, and images of walking are no substitute for walking. Images of fire are no substitute for actual fire, even if from mere candles. Images of water are no substitute for being on the river’s edge. Personally, I am not thrilled by those forms of art. By displaying images and recordings of natural objects instead of putting us in direct contact with them, I think that they add a layer of separation that prevents me from experiencing it as a religious event. “Son et lumière” shows leave me cold.

    But maybe I am just trying to theorize what is really my gut reaction.

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