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Early Pictorial Ceilings

( Originally Published 1920 )

WE have already dealt in general terms with the custom of painting ceilings, both with conventional patterns and finished pictures. As we have shown, probably the earliest attempts along this particular line of decoration were the representations of the ceilings as the firmament, with twinkling stars, to which were later added symbols of the Zodiac. This naturally led to a fuller development of the idea, the Greeks showing us the denizens of Olympus and the Romans glimpses of their more widely embracing Pantheon. The Roman love for their gardens soon suggested the trellis work with trailing vines, of architectural figures, such as columns and pilaster united by pediments and cross beams, each bearing clusters of flowers, leaves and fruit, so that in the end we had both medleys of horticultural and fantastic ornaments, " like an Italian garden," as already quoted.

While early western Christian art was rather restrained as regards the introduction of figures and " set pieces " for ceiling decoration, it was otherwise with the Byzantine artists, who, however, had their own hard and fast rules, far removed from classic practice. But they treated both walls and ceilings as broad spaces suitable for pictorial decoration. Their methods persisted for many centuries, and afford a link with the early Egyptian decorators. Robert Hendrie, who wrote at once as a chemist and painter of no mean attainments, in the introduction to his translation of " An Essay upon various Arts, in three books of Theophilus, called also Rugerus, priest and monk of the Eleventh Century," gives many interesting particulars of painting in fresco and tempera. He quotes Didron on the methods of painting on walls, as pursued by the monks at Mount Athos. Briefly, the artist monk had assistant monk painters and boy apprentices. Two coats of lime were laid on the wall ; firstly, half an inch of very fine mortar mixed with chopped straw ; secondly, a mere pellicle of the finest mortar mixed with cotton or flax. Three days were allowed for the two coats to dry, then the master lightly outlined the design in red. An assistant followed, filling in the outlines with black pigment. On this a superior assistant traced the draperies and ornaments, and formed nimbuses round sainted heads. Once more the master appeared, coating all the flesh parts with brown, then with yellow deadened with black, and a second coat of yellow to lighten the flesh, and a final coat of very light yellow, though all through shadows were left black or lightened with one or more yellow washes, thus depth being secured. The shadows were outlined with blue and painted over with green, and a rose colour completed the main part ; the lips, eyes, hair being filled in nearly the last. All this time the nimbus was used as a palette, on which the artist tried the effect of his colours. Three days were 'allowed for the colours to dry, and then the nimbus and parts of ornamentation were gilded. Rectifications and even consider-able modifications of design were possible almost to the last stage.

This is, of course, what in modern times has been named tempera painting (the art side of distempering), and is what was practised in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Nineveh, Greece and Rome. It involved the mixing of the pigments with a glutinous medium (that is, white of egg, size or gum) to prevent the colours sinking and fading away, or running one into the other. Many preparations have been advocated by different schools. As a rule the Italians added the milky sap of fig trees ; the Ger-mans had resort to a mixture of vinegar and honey. The characteristic of tempera is sharpness of outline and some hardness, for the colours dry quickly and there is no blending, except by direct mixing, or by the working of one transparent colour over another. In later times it became the fashion to protect tempera with an oil varnish, giving the finished work much of the quality of oil painting, with its depth and brilliancy.

These qualities of depth and brilliancy were attained by the ancients with an encaustic method, in which pigments were mixed with melted wax or resins, applied hot to plaster, stone or wood. It is, how-ever, one of the lost arts, and the exact procedure is unknown. Of late it has been suggested that the softened coloured waxes were placed on the surface and spread by means of heated spatulas, thus securing a certain amount of blending.

At the Renaissance a close study of classic art treasures led to at least a partial discovery of what contributed to the durability and beauty of ancient plaster. It was found that the top coating consisted entirely of, or contained much fine marble dust. This was the quick-drying stucco, which hardened with a bright polished surface. It was discovered, too, that if this substance, or any nearly pure lime plaster, was painted on while wet, a permanent stain resulted, and the painting retained a softness and limpidity unattainable by any other method. This is fresco painting, and requires great skill, because rapidity of execution is absolutely necessary, and retouching can only be carried out sparingly with tempera colours. The usual preparation for fresco painting is to use a fine plaster of slaked lime (matured for at least a year) mixed with sand. Over this a thin layer of very fine plaster is spread, and as quickly as possible a third layer is added, but only as much surface being laid on as can be painted in one day. The design is usually drawn with charcoal on cartoons and then pounced or pricked on the surface to be painted. Only earth and mineral pigments are used, ground in water, and are laid on rapidly, sinking in. The process of drying is effected by carbonic acid formed in the plaster, expelling the water in the form of vapour, and during this process a thin coating of carbonate of lime is formed on the surface protecting the colours. It is not possible to add wash upon wash, as this produces " sweating," and a disintegration of the plaster. Colours are always to be prepared several shades darker than are required in the finished picture, because the colours lighten during the process of drying. All the top plaster not painted upon during the day has to be carefully cut away, and a new layer as carefully laid on when the next day's work is being taken in hand. Touching up, must, as we have said, be carried out a secco, but this part of the work is not permanent and detracts from the purity and transparency of the rest of the colour.

It was in this fresco medium that Michel Angelo, Raphael, and all the great men of the Renaissance, down to the end of the Cinquecento, painted their walls and ceilings, practically ousting tempera for all better-class work, for the results attained outweighed the tremendous difficulties. involved. It will be seen, however, that for ambitious decorative art work, this is a medium only suited to those who are at once masters of outline and colour, and possessors of quite specialised dexterity. In the hands of the mediocre, except where board effects with washes and simple conventionalised patterns are sought, it is a fatal medium. A return to tempera for general use was inevitable. But for a time both methods were obscured, when towards the end of the fourteenth century, colours began to be ground in oils and applied in of the Middle Ages the treatment was bolder, with decided leaning towards realism, but the composition was usually poor. Figures mostly appeared as isolated studies, even when grouping was attempted there was little cohesion in the scheme, practically no shading.

Just prior to the Renaissance, realism was beginning to be softened by imagination, by that selective and emphasising faculty of the artist, whose aim it was to represent the outer world as it impressed itself upon his mind. It was a return to that power and finish brought to such high perfection in the best period of Greek art. Perugino was one of the first masters to display skill in applying his knowledge of perspective thin or thick washes. This enabled even poorer surfaces than those required for tempera to be used, and the artist could work at his ease, take his leisure, secure almost the same limpidity as with fresco, and all that richness and brilliancy the lost encaustic method gave.

Both tempera and oil painting suffered from the disadvantage of pealing or flaking off under certain conditions, such as dampness penetrating to the plaster from out-side, dessication of the surface under great heat or chemical action.

It will be impossible in a work of this kind to give anything approaching a catalogue raisonné of pictorial ceilings. We can only deal with general tendencies, refer to typical specimens. As we have seen, during the pre-Christian era, the treatment of ceilings was almost purely decorative, with the comparatively rare admission of more realistic treatment of the heavens, or overhead gardens. In early Christian art figures and even scenes were admitted, but the treatment was conventional, the figures being somewhat angular, flat, and without any attempt at foreshortening, and perspective was neglected. Towards the end generally treated pictures on walls and ceilings as miniatures, framed by running patterns or highly decorative designs, the medievalists covered more space, and were content with modest framings. With the Renaissance pictorial treatment was generally advanced, but it coincided with a very vigorous cultivation of decorative accessories, and we find both large and small pictures on ceilings treated as separate works to be set off by gorgeous mouldings and arabesques. We see this even in the work of Michel Angelo and Raphael. In Michel Angelo's superb work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, unity is given to the whole scheme, embracing a large number of pictures. by treating the space grotesques, is treated in a way to carry the eye from scene to scene, merely emphasising the break to separate event from event, while keeping up the sense of continuity. In the Stanze this exuberance of decoration is not so noticeable as it is in the Loggia. On the ceiling of the first of the chambers, the Camera della Segnatura, great medal-lions are filled with beautiful figures representing " Theology, " Philosophy," "Poetry " and " Justice." In the Stanza del'Eliodoro the ceiling is adorned with four large panels representing the promises of the Almighty to Noah, to Abraham, to Jacob and to Moses. Raphael treated his subjects with considerable liberty with a view to decorative effect and the position occupied by the pictures. For instance, in the first panel Noah's children are shown quite young, thus permitting delightful grouping. In the Abraham panel in place of the usual ram entangled in bushes, we see an angel flying down to arrest the patriarch's uplifted arm with the knife, while a second angel floats down bearing a lamb in his arms. Both in the Jacob and Moses panels, accessories are simplified in order to give a striking central motive. The stucco framing of the panels is extremely rich. Thirty-two small car-touches bear allegorical pictures to connect the great pictures with the scenes from the Apocrypha painted on the walls. In the centre of the ceiling are the arms of Pope Julius II. surrounded by elaborate floral designs, while most fanciful arabesques spread over the rest of the ceiling, knitting the whole together. ln the frames we see twice repeated two winged boys supporting the arms of Julius II. The colouring is very rich, gold frames on light blue ground, relieved by pinkish brown and chocolate brown ornaments. In the frescoes the sky is dark blue, the flesh rather browny red, and strong colourings form the scenery and drapery. In the Stanze dell Incendio the ceiling is a glorification of the Trinity by Perugino. The ceiling of the Sala Constantina was probably executed by Raphael's pupils and Sodoma. It represents a triumph of Christianity over paganism. On the pendentives are Italian landscapes, and lunettes are filled with allegorical figures.

In most of these instances the subjects are sufficiently conventionalised not to out-rage the feeling for appropriateness, and the same can be said of the ceiling pictures by Cimabue, Correggio, and to some extent of Paul Veronese. But the tendency to decorate ceilings with elaborate pictures without much regard to subject and due treatment in respect to their position grew apace. Moreover, there was also an in-creasing neglect of unity, and consequently we find ceilings divided up by exquisite stucco embellishments, in which pictorial gems suited for walls of for easel pieces, are enchased. This was very noticeable with the combined work of Sansovino, Paul Veronese and Tintoretto in Venice, and with that of their successors. For instance, on the ceiling of the Grand Council Cham-ber in the Ducal Palace most elaborate, beautifully moulded and coloured stucco is used to frame fifteen panels, in which Tintoretto, Paul Veronese, Francesco Bassano and others, represent the glorious feats of arms of the Republic of Venice. The series is continued in the Hall of Scrutiny, the same treatment being followed. But the natural desire is to take these down and place them within comfortable visual range on the walls. Quite a different effect was achieved by Paul Veronese with his Venice and St Mark glorified in Heaven. That is a splendid piece of decorative painting, quite suitable for placing on a ceiling. The same remark applies to this artist's Venice Enthroned, of which Ruskin says " one of the grandest pieces of frank colour in the Ducal Palace," and certainly most skilfully designed for its position.

Another of his pieces in this style is his Olympus on the cupola of an irregular octagon at the Villa Barbara. It is a crowded composition, in which we see fine nude and semi-nude divinities disporting themselves amidst fleecy clouds, the strong muscularity of the gods contrasting with the soft outlines and flesh colouring of the goddesses and juveniles, a composition in which perspective and foreshortening are a delight to all beholders. Returning to Venice and the Palace of its Doges, we can but admire, from this special point of view, and, indeed, despite criticism, for its general outstanding merits the central panel on the ceiling of the Sala dei Pregadi, where Tintoretto has symbolised Venice as Queen of the Seas. " Notable," says Ruskin, for the sweep of its vast green surges, and for the daring character of its entire conception, though it is wild and careless, and in many respects unworthy of the master. Note the way in which he has used the fantastic forms of the sea-weeds with respect to his love of the grotesque." A Paul Veronese of more doubtful value as a ceiling decoration is the Triumph of Venice filling the central panel of the Council Chamber of the Ten. Lanzi, amazed at the skill with which the crowded design is handled and the excellence of detail work, describes it in enthusiastic language. He says that Venice is shown " in regal attire, crowned by Glory, celebrated by Fame and attended by Honour, Liberty and Peace. Juno and Ceres are seen assisting at the spectacle, as symbols of grandeur and felicity. The summit is decorated with specimens of magnificent architecture and with columns, while lower down appears a great concourse of ladies with their lords and sons in various spleudid habits,all represented in a gallery ; and on the ground are warriors on their chargers, arms, ensigns, prisoners and captives of war. This oval picture presents us with a view of those powers with which Paul so much fascinated the eye, producing a general effect altogether enchanting, and including numerous parts all equally beautiful, bright aerial spaces, sumptuous edifices, which seem to invite the foot of the spectator lively features, dignified, selected for-the most part from nature, and embellished by art. Add to these very graceful motions, fine contrasts and expression, noble vestments, both for the shape and the materials . . . perspective that gives distance to objects without displeasing us when near, the most charming colours, which, whether similar or contrasted harmonised with a peculiar degree of art not to be taught." All of which is very true, but for its full enjoyment man must abrogate the dignity of his erect position, to lie flat on his back, or otherwise risk dislocation of his neck ; in either case scarcely conducing to a proper frame of mind for the appreciation of a work of art.

Moreover, all such crowded compositions, with heavy architecture, restive chargers tramping over terra firma, impress the unreality too obtrusively on the mind. Admire them though we may as the fine productions of masters, they are examples to be eschewed, as dangerous to all but giants, and adding little even to their credit.


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