Demonic or Just Art? Controversial Light Show Projected onto Famous Rome Basilica

Collapsing churches, pulsating spheres, and psychedelic tunnels were part of what its creators called a “fascinating” use of digital mapping technology.

An image of the Solid Light Festival show, projected onto the facade of the basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.
An image of the Solid Light Festival show, projected onto the facade of the basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. (photo: Edward Pentin photo)

A lightshow projected onto a number of church facades in Rome at the end of October was “extremely disturbing” and even “sacrilegious” for some observers while its creators defended it as a “transformation” of Rome's historic center (see clip below). 

The “Solid Light Festival” used the facades of the Pantheon, the basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (resting place of the bodily remains of St. Catherine of Siena), and the basilica of Sant’Agostino to “explore the new frontiers” of “digital arts” and “mapping” technology, according to its creators, a Spanish company called ‘Onionlab.’ Other sites included the Temple of Hadrian and the modern Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana.

The company says the aim is to “go beyond what is visible in the present” and to build on a “vision for the future that can confuse and confound, but is certainly fascinating.” The result, they added, is a “transformation” of the historic center of Rome into a “digital art museum” using “72 projections of videomapping.” 

But while the projected images demonstrated advances in digital art, they did not contain religious or sacred images — reminiscent of the controversial environmental "Fiat Lux" lightshow projected onto St. Peter’s Basilica on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in 2016. Instead, the scenes projected on the newly restored façade of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva were of collapsing or exploding churches, pulsating spheres, and psychedelic tunnels leading into an abyss. 

“I spend a lot of time at this church with St. Catherine. This is not ‘ok.’ It’s sick! It’s not art. Instead a ghastly form of mockery,” said one observer on Twitter. Another wrote: “This is extremely disturbing. My stomach feels sick.” 

Others called the images projected onto the basilica as “definitely demonic.” The basilica is the titular church of Cardinal Antonio dos Santos Marto of Fatima, and was the titular church of the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor of Westminster, England.

Not all were opposed, however. Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the president of the Australian bishops’ conference, tweeted: “Rome is the perfect setting for this kind of thing” and recalled a “Sound&Light” in Piazza Navona “with an orchestra playing Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring before a huge crowd not long after I arrived as an innocent student in 1980.”


Buck Stops With Vicariate

Others tweeted: “Don’t know about demonic. It’s certainly ugly” while another found it: “Amazing” and asked: “Is it all night or just a one off?”

So how did the spectacle come about? According to established protocol, the creators will have gone through the Vicariate of Rome for permission. Those in charge of running the various buildings, which also included some historic sites, also will have been consulted. 

Dominicans are in charge of the basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The rector, Dominican Father Gian Matteo Serra, told the Register Oct. 27 that the spectacle fulfilled three levels of authorization. The first one, the main reason for staging it, concerned him. 

“The question is: does the rector agree that the architectural images should be projected on the basilica? My answer was yes, as long as the images are approved by the Vicariate,” he said, adding the same principle applies to concerts in the basilica.

Regarding the content, Father Serra said it is the “Vicariate that gives the authorization on what is projected.” Lastly, he said the owner of the facility will assess any possible damage it might cause to the building itself. 

Father Serra said he had seen the projection “several times” but only after it had been shown to the public. However, he said his “sincere, personal opinion” was that he would “strain to consider it demonic or sacrilegious.” 

The Register contacted the Vicariate for comment but so far it has not responded. 

Some of the lightshow mapped onto the façade of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva on Oct. 26: