“Protect us from famine, war and plague, Seigneur,” cried the Lyonnaise people in 1628. Alas, their pleas came too late – the bubonic plague had already crossed the Rhône River, terrifying the inhabitants and killing half of them. Liza Perrat investigates the Black Death illuminated in Lyon…
The desperate people prayed to the Virgin Mary to return good health to the city until miraculously, in 1643, the plague disappeared. The Lyonnaise people never doubted their divine protection. So, how did this episode of divine intervention become the largest modern-day international light festival?
It all began on December 8, 1852, with the inauguration of a statue of the Virgin Mary, erected on Fourvière hill next to the site of the present-day Basilica. The Lyonnaise people showed their gratitude to Mary by lighting candles on their windowsills, the gesture proving more and more popular as the years passed.
Over a century later, in the 1980s, in conjunction with the advent of the lighting plan, the city of Lyon decided to transform the December 8 festival into the Fête des Lumières (light festival). On the eve of the winter solstice, in a magnificent urban ritual, the city’s public places would be illuminated in a different way each year.
Residents, associations, cultural groups, humanitarian associations and the local government work with artists, musical and theatrical performers, photographers and lighting engineers to provide the colored symphony of light that bathes the city in today’s celebration of light.
The festival, which attracts over four million visitors to Lyon, includes other light-based activities and lasts four days, with the main events occurring on the 8th. The focal points are generally the Fourvière Basilica, Saint Jean Cathedral, and the Place des Terreaux, where music, dancing, parades and food stalls transform the old district of Lyon into a place flooded with light, beauty and sound.
I began attending the festival back in 2002. Crossing the Saône River, my first glimpse of the illuminations was the Fourvière Basilica, overlooking the city on Fourvière hill. Symbolic of the people’s devotion to the Virgin Mary, the basilica was constructed between 1872 and 1884. Its oriental and neo-classic columns and columned porticos, blended with mediaeval-style machicolated towers, were lit in spectacularly fluorescent shades of green, blue and violet.
On Place des Terreaux, the ancient stones faded beneath a cinematic screen of stars and moons. Colored lights and shapes danced on the stages of renaissance architecture, and, as a bloodied revolutionary soldier crept across the starry sky, I lost all sense of dimension.
“December 8 has always been a show of thousands of people strolling together on a winter night in a city transformed simply by their presence,” said one of the artistic directors. “This moving public is at the heart of the festival, just as it is at the heart of urbanity, each person being a vector of light within the nocturnal landscape.”
Since its origin in the nineteenth century, December 8 has taken on an undeniably futuristic allure. But despite the magnificent illuminations, it seems that for the Lyonnaise people, the soul of the light festival remains within the beauty of thousands of tiny candle flames burning in unison along their windowsills. As people come from all over the world to share the rejoicing and emotion of these four breath-taking nights, the Lyonnaise people, lovers of tradition, continue, to pay homage to the Virgin Mary for banishing the Black Death from their midst.
Find out more about the annual 4 day light show in Lyon: www.fetesdeslumieres.com
Author Liza Perrat grew up in Wollongong, Australia. She now lives in France with her French husband whom she met on a bus in Bangkok. Find out more about Liza Perrat