An Environmental Message, From and on the Vatican
VATICAN CITY — This week, the facade and cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica, normally a brightly lit beacon in the capital’s sky, went dark for a few hours, throwing the Italian news media into high alert.
“Black out and fear for an electrical failure at St. Peter’s,” read one alarmist headline the next day. Other newspapers reported rumors of an antiterrorism drill.
The power cut was actually part of a technical dress rehearsal for “Fiat Lux: Illuminating Our Common Home”, a gift from a coalition and a public art projection on the facade of St. Peter’s timed to coincide with the climate talks in Paris. It is also part of the inauguration of the Roman Catholic Church’s yearlong Jubilee of Mercy, which starts Dec. 8.
The Basilica was darkened because “the show needs moments of preparation to ensure its success,” Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, said at a news conference on Friday. “I can assure everyone that it is a unique event for its genre and for the fact that it is being displayed for the first time on such a significant backdrop.”
“We are grateful for the gift and hope that many people will be able to enjoy it throughout the world,” said the archbishop, whose pontifical council is in charge of overseeing the Jubilee. The event will be streamed online at OurCommonHome.World.
Inspired by Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home,” along with St. Francis’ 800-year old Canticle of the Creatures, the hourlong projection is both a celebration of the beauty of creation but also a cautionary tale about the potentially devastating consequences of human impact on nature.
Using the language of “visual poetry,” the light show means to reinforce the idea “of a responsible stewardship for our common home,” a notion touched on by both the current Francis and the earlier one, said the artist Travis Threlkel, one of the curators of the project, which signals the start of the Jubilee but also the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, known as COP21, which continues in Paris through Dec. 11.
“We’re showing the diversity and glory of God’s creation on the planet, and we’re hoping to inspire the world to have reverence for all things,” Mr. Threlkel said by telephone from his office in San Francisco, where his company, Obscura Digital, is based. The digital projections will cover both the dome of the Basilica, designed in the mid-16th century by Michelangelo, and the facade, designed by Carlo Maderno about 70 years later.
In keeping with the saint who inspired his papal name, Francis has made environmental justice a cornerstone of his vision. His encyclical, issued in June, forcefully calls for action to stem environmental destruction and climate change, which has the most adverse impact on the world’s poor.
Warning last week in Nairobi, Kenya, that it would be “catastrophic” if particular interests were to prevail over the common good, Francis expressed the hope that the climate conference in Paris would “achieve a global and transformational agreement based on the principles of solidarity, justice, equality and participation; an agreement which targets three complex and interdependent goals: lessening the impact of climate change, fighting poverty and ensuring respect for human dignity.”
The projection will begin Tuesday evening, just hours after Francis opens the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica, inaugurating the holy year. More than 50 projectors perched on towers will display digital images by some of the world’s best known nature and humanistic photographers and filmmakers, including Sebastião Salgado, Joel Sartore, Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Louie Schwartzberg, onto the front of one of the world’s most noted churches.
The projection will be repeated three times. It will also be broadcast by a Vatican television station and streamed online.
Images will include forests, oceans, wetlands, flora and fauna, intersecting and interacting with the modulated Renaissance and Baroque architecture of the Basilica, and woven together into what Mr. Threlkel described as a “visual symphony with various movements and overtures.”
Black-and-white photographs from different indigenous cultures, by Mr. Salgado, merge into rare deep sea images by Howard Hall and David Doubilet that run into portraits of endangered species that Mr. Sartore took for his “Photo Ark,” a National Geographic photography project that aims to capture the world’s captive species.
The Vatican, Mr. Threlkel said, was very supportive. “For them, it was in line with what the church has always done, working with artists” throughout history, he said. “Today, using technology and media is the church’s way of being active in the art world.”