Travel presents endless possibilities for exploration and learning, and a good place to start is with architecture. A culture’s buildings are a depository of its past, present, and future and architecture communicates more than you might realize.
Ceilings in particular can say reams about the builders and their culture. By definition, the ceiling must function as the top of the room, but frequently, it does double duty as a means to broadcast information.
And when it comes to ceiling messages, religious buildings are without a doubt, the biggest player. Christian churches in particular use ceiling art to enhance already dramatic spaces and draw your eyes upward toward the Divine.
This is the apse of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Rome. An exquisite mosaic of Mary, John the Baptist, and other Christian dignitaries facing the crucification cross is a gleaming reminder of Christ’s divinity.
Of course, the most famous ceiling art on the planet is the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome. This massive, High Renaissance masterpiece took a reluctant Michelangelo four years to complete. And if you want to see Old Testament stories rendered in a master’s hand, this is the best place to exercise your neck. As they say at the Vatican: “No crane, no gain.”
On the other side of the globe, a much more modest, but equally impressive ceiling reminds the faithful of the fascinations of the heavens. The exterior of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Morelia, Mexico is dusty, unadorned brown stone. But step inside the ornate cathedral to hear The Word, and an explosion of color and delight surround you.
But Christians aren’t the only ones who realize that ceiling art can send a message. In the Buddhist Cave Temples of Dambulla, Sri Lanka it’s impossible to look in any direction, including up, without seeing sculptures and painted images of the Buddha. Intrepid tourists marvel at the spectacle, but mostly, the incense-choked caves are crowded with Buddhist pilgrims visiting for a day of devotion.
While intricate detail, painstaking artistry, and glimmering color can be inspirational, the Pantheon in Rome proves that a simple, geometric design can be striking as well. With the Roman army at his back, the emperor needed little additional advertising for his authority, but experts believe that the Pantheon’s elegant geometric ceiling with its singular ocular window represents the heavens and Hadrian’s divine power over the empire. Two thousand years after its construction, this is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome and a masterpiece of engineering centuries ahead of its time.
But one of our favorite uses for ceiling art is keeping dinner guests in line. The Latin phrase sub rosa means “under the rose.” In Roman times roses represented secrecy and confidentiality, so 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. Obviously, like the Romans before them, the Vanderbilts didn’t want any tongue-wagging either.
Every culture has unique, signature buildings, and frequently, there’s a ceiling up there that’s doing more than keeping the rain out. Cast your gaze upward and hear what you’re missing.
Do you have a favorite ceiling with a message? We’d love to hear about it.
James & Terri
2. By Aaron Logan via Wikimedia Commons