It is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a time traditionally suited to solemn reflection on the sinfulness of humanity. But in the darkened streets of Lyon there is rather more candyfloss and considerably more glühwein than one might associate with that theme. There are also far more light installations. In one square, a projection makes a building seem to shake, then collapse. Elsewhere, bright skeletal figures perform a jerky danse macabre. And in a darkened alleyway, a trapped elephant trumpets. Which is all very nice, if not terribly Catholic.
Nevertheless, at least one representative of the Catholic Church seems to approve. “I have been at least four times!” an elderly white-haired nun called Sister Nicole tells me. “I liked it very much. The movement of the theatre made it look like it had fallen.” She peers closely at me. “But it wasn’t real!” She looks delighted with this new magnum mysterium.
This is Lyon’s Festival of Lights, whose origins date back to 1643, when the city gave thanks to the Virgin Mary for delivering it from the plague. The tradition was reinforced in the 19th century, when she was also credited with saving the city from the advancing Prussian army, and residents have lit candles to the Virgin ever since, placing them in their windows on her feast day on December 8. In recent years these candles have evolved into a midwinter festival of son et lumière during which 70 light installations, such as the elephant and the collapsing theatre, are put up in the city’s streets and squares.
Ordinarily, the phrase son et lumière is one that, at least mildly, perturbs. Pink-lit provincial castles might have been appealingly à la mode in the 1950s but it is hard to imagine, given the sophistication of sons and lumières that modern spectators are used to (and that can even be provided by their mobile phones) that they can appeal today. But I arrive in Lyon and find that I am wrong. This festival clearly does appeal – and not only to nuns. The narrow, cobbled streets of this grand French city are packed. Some three million visitors are expected to attend the 2012 festival over the course of the weekend.
It is easy to see why. With or without fancy lighting, Lyon is beautiful. Its unspoilt streets (much of the old town is a Unesco heritage site) are filled with people eating crêpes, drinking glasses of steaming mulled wine and browsing in its bijou shops.
I walk to Fourvière, the city’s oldest part and the one with the greatest concentration of churches – and, today, of monks and nuns. In the streets there are Blackfriars, Greyfriars, nuns on trams, nuns drinking hot chocolate, nuns looking at shop windows. For some tourists, spotting them – a sort of nun Top Trumps – seems like an attraction in itself. As a pair of sisters walk past, I hear a voice behind me say: “Two! Blue! Two o’clock!”
As a wintry sunset approaches, the festival proper begins in the streets. From time to time, talk of a particularly good light installation spreads, whereupon the area around it becomes so packed that it is almost impossible to move. One of the most persistent rumours is that there is an elephant – and it is not to be missed. Imagining myself more worldly wise than a nun, and still a little suspicious of son et lumière, I head towards it not expecting to be terribly impressed.
I finally find the elephant in a crowded alleyway. And, absurd though this sounds, I am absolutely transfixed. I had always regarded the astonishment of early Edwardian film-goers with the somewhat smug superiority of the present, seeing their amazement as a sign of stupidity. But despite all I know, this elephant seems to me to be not a product of physics but of alchemy. The marvel here is not that the picture is moving, but that it seems to be perfectly, uncannily three-dimensional. And, like an astonished Edwardian, I have absolutely no idea how this is done.
There are other marvels too. Some, like the elephant, are marvellous because they are optical illusions (the elephant, I later learn, works because the narrow alleyway fools our depth perception). Others are simple but witty, like the almost-skeletal figures that seem to dance. And others are simply beautiful, such as a delicate installation that looks like a pile of paper caught by the wind and then frozen, mid-flight.
And then of course there are the original light installations of this festival. At sunset, candles are lit in the tall windows of the townhouses. Some blow out in the bitterly cold wind, leaving flickering dots and dashes of light in the darkness: a sort of Marian Morse. At the foot of the Fourvière hill, a crowd gathers for the main ceremony, each person holding a candle inside a white paper lantern, printed with the words of the Hail Mary.
At dusk, the doors of the church open. White-cowled priests appear, carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary. The crowd starts lighting their candles, one from the other. Before long, the square has its own constellation of lights. Everyone struggles to get closer to the virgin.
As we follow her up the hill towards the basilica where she will end her journey, a sloe-eyed, slow-handed French boy in front of me accidentally sets his paper lantern on fire. The words of the Hail Mary blaze up and the boy drops it on to the ground. He starts to cry. His mother passes him another candle. “They are all the same,” she says, to stop his tears.
On the street behind the boy and his mother, candles, all the same, follow in solemn procession up the hill. And in the streets below them, the installations flicker – very far from all being the same, and very far from being solemn.