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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And if you would like to see another flower with an important message:
2. By Aaron Logan via Wikimedia Commons