An unfamiliar congregation – in ‘a riot of electric red and hot pinks – interrupted the routine at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome this week. Milton Papamoscito got a first-hand account from a Vatican guard, who witnessed the event and remains under observation at a local clinic. Androa Mindre Kolo took the photographs.
Early Tuesday morning, Giancarlo Pocintesta got the fright of his life. Heading up a contingent of Vatican guards, he entered St Peter’s Basilica at 8am, as he had been doing for years, to perform a routine morning sweep of the premises. Following 9/11, suspect package sightings and bomb threats have gone up by 37 per cent, according to the Holy See, and more frequent and in-depth guard tours are required.
On this particular morning, things were not as they usually are at that hour: quiet, bathed in the focus of silent prayer. Instead, a rising tide of cries filled the nave, called out in a tongue that Pocintesta could not identify. The usual muted garb of the early morning faithful was absent as well, replaced by what Pocintesta described as a riot of electric reds and hot pinks, towering turbans and jangling bangles.
As his eyes adjusted to the light at the far end of the edifice, Pocintesta noticed something thoroughly surprising, unlike any sight he had experienced in the quarter century he had served the See: not only was the front part of the Basilica more crowded than it ever is at that time, all of the people present were black. Pocintesta, whom this reporter interviewed over several hours, points out that he is not prejudiced, just observant, and that he was concerned for the safety of the public, given the peculiar moans emanating from the crowd amassed in the nave.
Following protocol, Pocintesta deployed his men, a team of five, along the aisles and instructed them to make their way discreetly toward the front of the building, using two rows of columns for cover. Thankfully, he notes, there were only two other visitors in the Basilica at the time, both of whom had sought refuge near confessionals some distance away. No priests were on duty to receive them, however.
As he approached the nave, Pocintesta identified a man who appeared to be leading the group, either in song or prayer, he could not tell which. Men and women were present – 40 people clustered in a tight group, some holding hands, others kneeling, many raising their palms to the domed ceiling and nodding fiercely.
The leader, a man in his 30s dressed in a Versace suit, Ermenegildo Zegna tie with matching pochette and patent-leather loafers, periodically addressed the group in a throaty garble. A few women clutched gold chains adorned with the Chanel logo, Pocintesta recalled, shaking his head in disbelief at the memory. (Pocintesta’s daughter works as a private assistant to the designer Karl Lagerfeld, overseeing accessories for his Milan runway shows, thus he is well equipped to recognise brands and styles.) Pocintesta and his men fell back to observe the scene and decide on an appropriate course of action. At 8:43am they elected to intervene. The leader had arranged his flock in a line and they appeared to be contemplating an assault on the altar. Circling the crowd, the guards were preparing to immobilise the leader when a tall man in a mustard dinner jacket began walking with great haste toward the best-known work of art in the Basilica, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s ‘Baldacchino’.
Pressing his palms up to one of the masterpiece’s braid-like columns – something that is naturally forbidden – he began speaking in increasingly agitated sentences, which Pocintesta compared to the call-outs of an auctioneer at a particularly contested sale.
As Pocintesta and his crew advanced toward the leader with the intention of subduing him, the man in mustard flung off his jacket, revealing a grape-coloured velvet shirt with thick ruffles at the neck and a gold swashbuckler’s sword. For obvious reasons, the weapon gave the guards pause, though it later turned out to be a stage prop used in a music video.
As the guards huddled to decide how to proceed, the man in ruffles raised his arms and both the ’Baldacchino’ and the leader began to lift off the ground. For several minutes, they hovered above the floor, then gained altitude. Eventually, the man came down and the ‘Baldacchino’ floated up to the dome, where it remained for 20 minutes. At 9:12am, it wafted down and settled in its original location. Briefly, while on high, it developed a coat of bright orange polka dots.
Although it might seem improbable, Pocintesta’s account is corroborated by all of the Vatican guards and several members of the crowd at the altar, whom the police questioned at length. The Pope, in Belarus at the time, was reached by telephone and immediately boarded a plane. By the time he landed at Fiumicino Airport however, the ‘Baldacchino’ was back in its usual place. Following this fateful event, specialists in physics, gravity sciences and theology, as well as three magicians from Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, have been poring over the mystery of the floating ‘Baldacchino’. Most recently, the possibility of an exorcism has been evoked, causing considerable debate in the conclave of advisors to whom the Pope puts matters of import relative to the life and physical plant of the Holy See.
Concerning the persons present at the altar at the time of the event, little is known except that they are of Congolese origin, several hold doctorates in cultural anthropology from the University of Leuven in Belgium, and all belong to ELVIS (Eglise du Libre Vatican Itinéraire Sud / Free Vatican Church Southern Itinerary), an organisation based in St Denis, a suburb of Paris. Research into ELVIS’s history and teachings is ongoing.
Interviews for this article were conducted at Clinica Santa Teresa in Rome, where Pocintesta and two of his team are recovering from cluster migraines they suffered after witnessing the levitation. The photographer, Androa Mindre, has been documenting ELVIS’s activities for some time. Images of the levitating ‘Baldacchino’, he reports, were confiscated by the Vatican police.