Architecture / Art / Travel

Overheard Overhead

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.”

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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.

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

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.

Geometric ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy

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.

Biltmore Subrosa Ceiling

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.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Detailed ceiling of Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang, Laos

Photo Credits:
2. By Aaron Logan via Wikimedia Commons

15 thoughts on “Overheard Overhead

  1. Your photos of fabulous ceilings reminded me of Atotonilco near San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. They call it the “Sistine Chapel of the Americas”. I had the chance to admire it last year, and was awestruck.

    • Joe, I didn’t see Atotonilco when we visited San Miguel, but from the photos, it’s certainly reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel. I’m not sure when the Catholic Church started decorating their ceilings, probably the Renaissance, but I’m sure the art community gave a cheer … or said a prayer of thanks. 🙂 ~James

    • Laura, I’ve never seen a ceiling being painted, but I have seen restoration crews at work in grandiose cathedrals, and working on scaffolding for all this painstaking work must be grueling. Apparently, completing the Sistine Chapel almost crippled Michelangelo – a labor of love I guess. ~James

  2. Those are all great examples and I’ve been lucky enough to visit a few of those. There is a rarely visited temple in Bangkok called Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen with a celestial domed interior that is quite stunning.

    • Jeff, I just googled this Wat and WOW! The dome looks fantastic. We’ve been to Bangkok a few times and I’m not sure how we’ve missed this Wat. But as you know, there’s no shortage of sights to see there and it’s hard to cover everything. It will definitely go on the list for next time. Thanks. ~James

    • Thanks Peta. The Dambulla caves were exceptional for so many reasons, and the ceilings were only one. In fact, the entire experience at the caves was wonderful and a once-in-a-lifetime for us. It’s a fabulous place that should be on every traveler’s list, but at the same time, I’d love it to stay just the way it is. ~James

    • Thanks Henry. Until I started traveling and paying attention, I had never thought very much about ceilings as a workspace for artists and a message board for religions, but if makes perfect sense. ~James

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