These most excellent canopies

25 October 2019

In a new illustrated book, Catherine McCormack looks up at the masterpieces adorning examples of famous ceilings

Rob Whitworth/Alamy

Sagrada Família

Sagrada Família

WHY do we look up? In childhood, we look up for reassurance, guidance, and a model of the future that awaits us. As humans, we are hierarchical and believe that the higher up something is, the greater its importance, and we consequently tend to desire things that are tantalisingly out of reach.

As humanity, we have looked up at the sky above us to understand our place in the universe, using the constellations of the stars to chart our voyages. In looking up, we reflect on our gods and construct the stories of our creation. In looking up, we encounter the frontiers of our knowledge in the firmament of sky and stars that we have tried so hard to conquer and inhabit — first with air travel, then through space.

For the sky binds us to our planet, but also presents a boundary that we long to break through. Looking up was led by a desire for transcendence beyond ourselves, and this is, perhaps, why it is here that we have long projected our religious, cultural, and social beliefs and philosophies.

This might also explain why the blank spaces of our buildings — the domes, the vaults, the ceilings — have proved irresistible to emblazon and decorate; they act as a version of the sky that we can control and occupy to our own design. The words are linked linguistically, after all. The English word “ceiling” is influenced by the Latin term caelum, meaning “sky” or “heaven”.

This must be why we have designated the sky as the source of all that we revere, to the abandonment of the ground beneath us. In the early 1500s, Leonardo da Vinci said that we knew more about the movement of the celestial bodies above than we did about the soil underfoot. But it has not always been so. Before the end of the Neolithic period (c. 3000 BCE), we looked into the earth for our spirits and gods.

The great sky-god cults emerged at the beginning of the Indo-European age, and their dominance has not waned. They are all present in the works selected for this book — from Jupiter, the king of the pagan gods, hurling his thunderbolts, Hindu’s Krishna, Shiva, and Vishnu and the spiritual deities of Buddhism, to the Christian god of judgement and creation, and the divinity of Islam, conveyed not in pictorial form but sublimated into pattern, colour, and light.

The architecture of our religious buildings leads our gaze upwards, both in the soaring vaults of early medieval European cathedrals, and the dome, its circular shape a symbol of heaven and a metaphor for eternity, from Islam to Christianity. And, because we have placed our gods in the sky, looking up fosters aspirations of immortality.

The ceiling is an aggrandising space for those who have the means to occupy it in visual form, whether in the story of Christian saints or the apotheosis of popes and prince-bishops, or even artists, as in the case of Salvador Dalí’s Palace of the Wind ceiling, which depicts his apotheosis into the subconscious mind.

Let’s not forget that, while we are looking up, figures in the images above are looking down on us. The techniques of sotto in su (from below to above) and trompe-l’oeil (trick of the eye) are intended to terrify, inspire, and entertain, making spectators flinch as they anticipate the overspill of the illusory world of the painting into their own space.

Looking up does strange things to us. The body becomes vertical; the feet, hands, and ground disappear. We become human columns, using only our eyes. Looking up takes us out of our heads, into star time, Krishna time, towards transcendence and freedom from our mortal bonds.

But we also must not forget that looking up can be a form of agony: with necks crooked, it becomes hard to swallow, our throats constricted and exposed. Michelangelo knew this when he described the torture of four years spent painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, trapped in a living hell of his own description. It seems, perhaps, that we cannot always have our heads in the stars.


Neonian baptistery, fourth century, Ravenna, Italy

Built on an octagonal plan, the building had a unique function as the site for the initiation rite of baptism — a ritual that took place only once a year, on the eve of Easter Day. It was a place where early Christians went to be reborn and to commune with God, and this is the theme of the interior mosaic decorating the cupola, commissioned by Bishop Neon (451-73), several decades later.

The central medallion of the cupola is directly above the huge baptismal font at ground level, and shows a gargantuan figure of John the Baptist baptising a nude Christ, who is submerged up to the waist in transparent rippling water while God descends as the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.

Much of this image has been crudely restored during post-medieval alterations, including John’s head and arm, Christ’s head and shoulders, and the dove. The most significant change is that, originally, Christ was depicted as beardless, in keeping with fourth- and fifth-century early Christian depictions in which the figure of God-made man resembled the youthful and clean-shaven Apollo, the pagan god of sun, enlightenment, and creativity.

Riccardo Sala/AlamyNeonian Bapistery

A smaller figure of an elderly man looks on and is a personification of the River Jordan. The picturing of the river as a figure is doubly significant. First, this was a solution to the conundrum of how to depict the idea of “living water”: a concept central to the sacrament of baptism. Second, it was a way of recycling the already familiar visual tradition in earlier pagan Roman and Greek art of depicting river deities in human form.

The mosaics have not only served a community of spiritual or art-loving pilgrims, but also beguiled the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who visited the Neonian Baptistery in the 1930s, an experience that influenced his ruminations on the subconscious and conscious mind and the archetypal experiences of death and rebirth.


Sagrada Família, 1883-present, Spain

The Sagrada Família revisits the overpoweringly majestic architectural language of the French Gothic style from the 12th and 13th centuries, as seen in cathedrals such as Chartres, Amiens, and Rouen. These buildings used amplified scale and proportions to draw the eye up towards an imagined celestial realm.

The resulting space between the heads of congregants and the lofty vaults that towered over them was filled with prayer, song, and chanting, while a diffused coloured light permeated through stained glass to give the sensory effect of an otherworldly paradise.

In Barcelona, Gaudí eschewed the traditional engineering solutions that supported such masonry, replacing flying buttresses with unique solutions found in the mathematical complexity of the natural world. This manifested in weight-bearing columns modelled on the hyperbolic paraboloids of tree trunks and their branches, along with conoids, fractals, and spirals.

As such, the church is a harmonious synthesis of the built and natural environments, all underpinned by Gaudí’s devout belief in God as the supreme architect of nature. As he himself suggested: “Those who look for the laws of Nature as a support for their new works collaborate with God.”

The critical reception of the church has been particularly divisive: while many have praised it as a fitting rendering of spirituality in stone, others have found it vulgar, pretentious, and even, in the words of George Orwell, “hideous”.


Debre Berhan Selassie Church, 17th century, Gondar, Ethiopia

ROBERTO FUMAGALLI/ALAMYDebre Berhan Selassie Church, GondarA patchwork of red, blue, and gold clings to every available surface on the walls and ceiling inside the Debre Berhan Selassie Church in Gondar. In this sprawling composition, biblical stories are vividly narrated using an abundance of figures, from men with white beards to saints on horseback, and even a thorny-clawed black devil with huge horns squatting in a nest of flames.

The disembodied heads of 135 angels gaze down from the flat-beamed roof like custodians waiting in a court of heaven, each with its own individual expression. It is beneath their benign gazes that the biblical stories are played out.

It has survived against the odds — perhaps the angels on the ceiling have gifted some protection, the power of their collective gaze too overwhelming for potential marauders. In fact, one of their number is said to have protected the church from destruction in the 19th century; when the Mahdist dervishes of the Sudan sacked the city of Gondar in 1888, they burned down every church in the city except Debre Berhan Selassie. According to local legend, a swarm of bees descended on the compound, repelling the troops, while the Archangel Michael himself stood before the large wooden gates armed with a flaming sword.



Miquel Barceló, Ceiling of the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room 2008, United Nations Office, Geneva, Switzerland

At first glance, this could be a grotto, dripping with a millennia’s worth of mineral formations, or the subaquatic blossoms of an ocean reef. Or, perhaps, it is what the surface of the moon would look like if it were sprayed with cannon jets of paint.

GFC Collection/AlamyCeiling of the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room

In fact, it is the geography of earth’s nations in 35 tonnes of paint, comprising pigments gleaned from earth and rocks from around the globe. This disparate, elemental matter comes together in a miasmic polychromatic flow, irrespective of the borders, racial differences, or colours of their origins, to express the utopian political ideal of harmonious international relations.

The concept was inspired by the artist’s experience of a mirage in the heat of the Sahel desert in Africa, where Barceló describes witnessing a vision of the world flowing drop by drop towards the sky.

Stalactites up to one metre (three feet) long hover over the delegates in the chamber, and are supported by an aluminium honeycomb structure attached to the dome.

The work was not unveiled without controversy over the €23-million price tag: critics lamented the siphoning of funds from international aid and vaccines to a project that seemed primarily to serve the ego of the Mallorcan superstar artist.


Dr Catherine McCormack is a writer and curator who teaches art history at Sotheby’s Institute of Art.

These are edited extracts from The Art of Looking Up by Catherine McCormack, published by White Lion at £35 (Church Times Bookshop £30).

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