Architecture / Art / Travel

Overheard Overhead


When it comes to ceiling art, the biggest player has to be the church. Christian churches in particular use ceiling art to enhance already dramatic spaces and draw eyes upward toward the Divine. This is the nave of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Rome. The message is clear and the artwork is exquisite.


Of course, the most famous ceiling art on the planet is Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. This massive masterpiece is without equal, and took four years to complete. It’s the very definition of an inspired work, but interestingly, when Michelangelo was first asked to paint the ceiling, he wanted no part of the project. He considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter, and he had no experience whatsoever with frescoes. In addition to being a brilliant sculptor, undoubtedly, when it came to painting he was also a fast learner.

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On our recent trip to Mexico, The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Morelia, used a very different, but equally impressive technique. The ornate and colorful decorations drew the eyes up like a magnet.

Intricately painted ceiling of a Buddhist cave temple in Dambulla, Sri Lanka

But Christians aren’t the only ones who realized that ceiling art could send a message. In Dambulla, Sri Lanka, a series of caves with wonderful ceiling art, is a popular site of pilgrimage and devotion for Buddhists.

Detailed ceiling of Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang, Laos

A Buddhist Temple, in Luang Prabang, Laos achieves its goal using a simple palate of gold, red, and blue. The results are stunning and anything but simple.

Geometric ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy

The Pantheon in Rome proves that, while intricate detail, painstaking artistry, and glimmering color can be inspirational; a simple, geometric design also works. And two thousand years after its construction, it’s still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome – making it an engineering masterpiece as well.

Biltmore Subrosa Ceiling

But one of my favorite uses for ceiling art is keeping dinner guests in line. The ancient Latin phrase sub rosa means “under the rose.” For Romans, roses represented secrecy and confidentiality. At important feasts, roses were hung from the ceiling to remind everyone that “What happens in Rome, stays in Rome.” This sub rosa ceiling is in the great hall of Biltmore, the Golden Age Chateau outside Asheville, North Carolina. The Vanderbilts didn’t want any tongue-wagging either.

Travel presents endless possibilities for exploration and learning, and for me, a good place to start is with architecture. Every culture has unique, signature buildings, and it’s taken a few years, but finally, I’ve learned how to listen to what buildings have to say. Architecture communicates, and ceilings in particular, can say reams about the builders and their culture. Sometimes the voice is loud and obvious; sometimes soft and subtle. By definition, a ceiling must function as the top of the room, but frequently, it does double duty as a medium to broadcast information. Cast your gaze upward and see what you’re missing.

Happy Trails,

pink-lotusThis post is part of our Lessons From The Road Series.” Click here to see all the posts in the series.

And if you would like to see another flower with an important message:

The Lotus: An Exquisite Flower and Symbol of Faith

Photo Credits:
2. By Aaron Logan via Wikimedia Commons

14 thoughts on “Overheard Overhead

  1. Look up, look up and what do I see at the top of your blog? over 4000 followers! Congratulations.
    Your varied collections of ceilings intrigues me. finding a common theme in many different locations. Gets me to thinking…. 🙂

    • Thank Sue. This was fun to put together, and if you like architecture, this idea could be a springboard for all sorts of posts. Also, thanks for the comment and for the heads-up on our comments being turned off. Thanks to your keen attention, you may have the dubious honor of being the only commenter on this post. ~James

      • James usually I read your posts just before bed on Thursday and Sunday. Last night I was just too wiped out from cycling otherwise could have helped sooner. At any rate if I am the only one I will take it as a compliment as I am sure it’s been a very long time since that happened on Gallivance!

  2. What a beautiful post! I just love your collections of similar themed photos that somehow wind up as a post.

    Your posts often make me wonder. My thought this time is why, if we are supposed to keep our heads bowed out of reverence, why do they decorate the *ceilings* so gloriously? You would think the floors would also merit some attention too, no? ;~)

    As always, thanks for a wonderful reminder of how much beauty is out there waiting to be explored!

    • Thanks Jonelle. I have seen a few churches that have very nice tile and mosaic floors, but you’re right, the ceilings almost always seem fancier. When you think about it, ceilings really are a pretty big billboard. And most churches never miss the opportunity to communicate their message. And I really enjoy pulling together posts like this. It gives me a chance to have another look at our photos, and relive the experiences. ~James

  3. WHAT is holding up that dome?! 🙂 Hey James & Terri. It’s good to see that things are still looking up for you.

    • You’re right Marie. One of my other favorite details is downspouts. In fact, I will eventually do a post on them. Medieval architects loved to show there stuff on cool downspouts. ~James

  4. It is possible to leave Rome with a serious neck injury from looking up at all the ceiling art. For me, when a building has grand ceilings and floors I know that they went all out to make it special.

  5. I tend to have a crick in my neck from looking up at ceilings, James. There are some beauties here! Luang Prabang has me riddled with jealousy, and the Biltmore is exquisite. 🙂
    One of my few disappointments in Paris was not being allowed photos inside Sacre Coeur.

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