Book Shorts

The art of ceilings and domes—a book on where to see them

Almost a travel guide, this publication illustrates the great art to be found around the world, so long as you look up

Dome of the Imam Mosque, Isfahan, Iran (1611-29) Quarto Books

Andrea Mantegna is conventionally credited with the invention of perspectival ceiling painting with his fresco cycle (1465-74) in the Camera degli Sposi or Camera Picta in the Gonzaga Palace in Mantua. There, in the finto oculus of the domed ceiling, various figures and animals look down from the parapet into the room below, while, above them, clouds float through a serenely blue sky. Since that moment, decorated ceilings have undergone multiple transformations, not only of ocular refinement, styles and size, but of uses. In this book, Catherine McCormack presents some of the most spectacular examples of ceiling and dome decoration, including several non-European examples.

In most religions (with the obvious exception of animism), the divine is thought to dwell “above” human beings—in the sky or even above, in the Empyrean sphere or the “heavens”. It is but a short architectural, visual and metaphorical step to site images of the gods, of uplifting subjects, of powerful rulers or, symbolically, of institutions well above the viewers’ heads.

McCormack presents 40 examples in immaculate colour photographs, including fold-out pages which capture the vast extent of some of the examples. All of the old chestnuts—the Sistine Chapel, the Banqueting House, the Venetian Palazzo Ducale—are here, along with some lesser known or visited cases, such as the Debre Berhan Selassie Church in Ethiopia or the stained glass ceiling of the Toluca Botanical Gardens greenhouse in Mexico City, to name but a couple.

The non-figural examples are powerful by comparison in so far as the Western examples rely on recognition of the subject matter to achieve the sense of artistic power, while the half-million, coloured ceramic tiles of the Imam Mosque in Iran (shown here) or the thick honeycomb of muqarnas in the Hall of the Abencerrajes of the Alhambra Palace in Granada rely only on size and multiplicity to humble the visitor.

Needless to say, each of us will carp at omissions. Mine is the ceiling of the Kaisersaal of the Würzburg Residenz (rather than the staircase which is included). There, in a detail, Tiepolo has a nymph masturbating the River Mainz. So it’s not always power and politics when you look up.

  • Catherine McCormack, The Art of Looking Up, Quarto Group / White Lion Publishing, 240pp, £35, $45 (hb)