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Some Church Ceilings

( Originally Published 1920 )

VARIOUS phases of decoration for church ceilings and roofs have been dealt with at length in the preceding chapters, but several particular examples afford useful lessons for us, and so deserve detailed description.

Early Christian art may be said to have lasted until A.D. 800, and most of our knowledge of it we owe to the carvings and paintings in the catacombs at Rome, miniatures adorning manuscripts, and vestiges of decoration on a few architectural remains. These early churches—whether of the basilica—oblongs with an apse, and in the completed specimens, aisles ; or the round often had vaulted ceilings, barrel-shaped over the body of the oblong edifices, and groined over the apse. These were of wood, bricks or stone, and were sometimes plastered. Deep cofferings, as in classical prototypes, are not uncommon, and both carving and painting were employed. Applied decoration was essentially symbolical, geometrical figures included the cross (both the Latin with long lower limb, and the Greek with limbs of equal dimensions), triangles (the Holy Trinity), and its specially mystic forms, the pentacle (two triangles super-imposed, one with the apex turned up, the other turned down, forming a fretwork six-pointed star), and the triquestra (or endless knot twisted into a three-lobed figure with a central triangle) ; and the trefoil of many types. God the Father is represented by a hand issuing from a cloud ; the Holy Ghost by a dove. Our Lord was represented by the lamb (the cross standing for the wider sense of Christian religion), and a fish. The latter gave rise to that peculiar form of the aureole or glory, the vesica piscis, a pointed ellipsis, supposed to be the outline of a fish's bladder, and frequently shown as enclosing the figure of Christ or some sacred emblem. Three fishes placed in a circle or grouped as a triangle symbolised Christian baptism, being more emphatic than the chevron and other wave forms, although used for the same purpose, as they had been employed before to represent pagan lustrations. A dolphin, that pagan emblem of youth and sea power, stood for the Resurrection. At quite an early period, however, pictures of Christ were attempted. There were practically two schools of art, the African, which depicted the Saviour as ugly, with the desire of emphasising the triumph of the Divine over the externals of Incarnation (and from this school we have black effigies of Christ), and the Greek school, which represented Our Lord as the physical embodiment of beauty. He was shown as a beardless youth, with long curly hair. From this latter school the Latins evolved a type that has stood as the basis of iconography ever since. It shows a man of about thirty, with long oval face, broad smooth forehead, straight slender nose, arched brows, hair parted in the middle, full beard, and sweet but grave expression. This perfect type, however, came at a rather later period. The eagle of St John, winged ox of St Luke, and winged lion of St Mark, or even eagle, ox and lion-headed human bodies were often used. Other animals and also inanimate objects were employed symbolically. As pointed out above, the portraiture of Christ was a slow evolution, for in the early stages, figure painting, though not rarely deeply impressed with a feeling of religious ecstasy, is crude, without that sense of proportion and physical beauty so general among the Greeks. Yet the pagan influence is quite unmistakable in many of the paintings, which betray a continuity of memory if not of superstition, for not only is the grouping constantly modelled in mythological subjects, but we see mythological figures (such as river-gods and personifications of the Elements) introduced, slightly disguised, or disguised not at all. The paintings are very flat, with little suggestion of the roundness of life, and practically a complete ignoring of perspective.

Byzantine church decoration, and indeed decoration in this style of every description, is more distinctly Christian and devotional in character, though with a curious suggestion of formalism and the importance of an elaborate ritual. Crude and stiff as is the figure drawing, it is effective. The angular figures, unlike those in antique buildings, are gorgeously apparelled, vivid colour and gold being used, and are usually made to stand out from a background of broken gold, or a light tint laid on flat. Such paintings are commonly richly framed in mosaic, or broad lines of brilliant colour and gold, while the mass of ceiling, vault or wall is covered by open scroll work, or very heavy arabes= ques, foliated scrolls, often framing little square, circular or oval medallions painted or filled in with mosaic pictures—such as portraits of sacred or historical personages, of birds and beasts. Although Byzantine art as a complete whole had but a short reign in Italy, and still shorter outside the peninsular in occidental Europe, it lingered in Eastern Europe and flourishes to this day in Russia, while its influence on art in general and especially religious art was deep and lasting.

Architects and artists of the Renaissance and early Gothic inherited the traditions of primitive Christian art, largely modified by Byzantine feeling, and to some extent technique. Geometrical figures and symbolism, as we have shown, played a conspicuous part in decoration. There was a great tendency to use colour in masses and in strong contrast, while figure painting was largely resorted to. The Romanesque and, indeed, the whole medieval school, shows a rapid technique, with a struggle between pure conventionalism and a dawning, but awkward naturalism. Figures stand out from backgrounds of pale, pure tints, generally blue ; gold and rich colours are used to heighten effects and add ornamentation.

Cimabue marked the link between the old order and the dawning of the new. He shows a devotional spirit, a sense of colour and a distinct intention to approach nature. One of his best known and most characteristic works is the embellishment in the lower Church of the Convent of St Francis, Assisi. The four compartments of the vaulting are filled with half-length figures of the Saviour, St John, the Virgin Mary, and St Francis, exhibiting the stigmata. All four have the plain glory ; the figures are rather stiff, but well drawn and coloured ; the draperies belong decidedly to the old order. Two angels, each holding a globe and cross, occupy the spandrels dividing the compartments. A rainbow ornament is seen in the background. The surrounding space is richly decorated with symbolical ornaments, such as the winged bull of St John, crosses and flowers. It is to be noted that the angels have hair of that rich auburn hue which was afterwards to be identified with Titian's school. Cimabue was appointed Capo Maestro, or chief of the mosaic artists for the Duomo at Pisa, where we have from him a marvellous Christ in His Glory in the apse. Michel Angelo Buonarrotti showed a fine combination of naturalism founded on a study of classic examples and on anatomy. At first his manner leaned more to naturalism, then his own powerful imagination prevailed, and we have a freer style, with a grand representation of beauty of form. It is to this stronger, more vigorous manner that his great work in the Sistine Chapel, Rome, belongs. He decorated the whole surface of the Chapel, a colossal effort, for the ceiling, with which we are more immediately concerned, measures 132 feet by 44 feet. He began his work in 1508 and completed it, practically unaided, in 1512. The ceiling is a plain, flat arc of an ellipse, 68 feet above the floor. In order to produce an effective yet natural design, to occupy such a tremendous expanse, Michel Angelo fell back upon his profound knowledge of the art of building. He designed an imaginary architectural scheme, in which columns, pillars, entablatures, cornices and so on rise gracefully from the walls. These architectural members are painted to represent marble and bronze, carved and chased with classic mouldings and bold ornamentation. In this way he was not only able to divide up the space into suitable sections, but provide an appropriate framing for his pictures, a framing, which, while dividing, linked up the whole majestic series. As part of this architectural machinery we have a most extensive and varied series of figures, single and grouped, now painted to life, now represented as bronze statues, occasionally doing duty as caryatides, but more commonly as statues, or living figures connected with the building. The effect is to produce a most natural sense of blending between the walls and ceiling and the spectator. A further step in this illusion is provided by twelve panels filled with pictures of the Prophets in appropriate attitudes, and with their attributes, the enraptured beautiful young Delphic Sybil, and the withered old form of the Cumean Sybil, the face worn with the knowledge and wisdom of ages. Two boys on each side of these twelve panels are shown standing on pedestals supporting on their heads with uplifted hands the architraves and cornices which run round the central panels of the ceiling. They are most life-like in appearance, and although there are forty-eight of these chubby, almost undraped figures, each boy assumes a different attitude, and has an individual expression. This same care in design is seen throughout. These prophets lead up to another series of twenty-two small panels, filled with groups of figures representing the genealogy of Christ. All this is to set off the nine large middle oblong panels, the four lunettes in the corners, and the ten small circular panels in which the Old Testament story of Genesis, from the Creation to the Fall of Man, is told with the sure touch of genius. The first oblong panel, which is immediately over the awful painting of the Last judgment on the wall below, shows, as Michel Angelo's pupil, Asconi Condivici, says : " God Almighty with uplifted arms separating light from darkness." In the second panel the Creator surrounded and sup-ported by angels, holds the Sun in His right hand and the Moon in His left. In the third, God commands the sea to bring forth fish. The fourth and fifth show the creation of Adam and Eve. The sixth panel is divided into two sections : in the upper we see Evil, represented as a snake, with the bust, head and arms of a woman, coiled round a tree and tempting the first man and woman ; in the lower, Adam and Eve are driven from Paradise. The seventh panel represents the sacrifice of Noah ; the eighth, the Deluge ; the ninth, the drunkenness of Noah. The four lunettes contain paintings of the people perishing by a swarm of, biting serpents ; the punishment of Haman and the ascent of Mordecai ; the death of Goliath ; and Judith and Holofernes. The ten circular panels bear groups appropriate to, and elaborating the story told in the larger oblongs. The whole extraordinary production with its army of figures, is instinct with life and piety. Each figure is a masterly study in pose and expression. The sublime grandeur of the Creator, aloof and beneficent, is far removed in conception from the angelic and human throng. Not only are we shown yo th, age, but the very feeling of the various personages. The anatomy is a revelation, and the daring foreshortening, for instance in Jonah and certain of the accessory figures, displays a sure grasp and a knowledge of visual effect that has perhaps never been equalled, certainly never surpassed. The colouring also, suffered much though it has, is superb. But, when all is said and done, the architectural machinery apart, this ceiling represents painting in the wrong place. We are dealing here with high art, not decorative art, .and so the full beauty can never be appreciated at its worth, even when the adventitious aid of the mirrors offered by guides are used. Of the whole series of pictures, the two first alone appear to be in their right places.

In St Peter's, Rome, the immense and lofty nave is covered by a barrel vault, the painted and gilded stucco being ornamented with deep coffers, these rows being alternately oblong and square. Coffers with bevelled edges also adorn the soffits of the great arches. The cupola of the dome, 412 feet from the floor, is beautifully enriched with mosaic ornamentation, surrounding four mosaic panels with figures _of the Saviour, the Virgin, and the Apostles. Above all, on a level with the lantern is God Almighty. St Peter's is, however, more remarkable for the majestic proportions, the grandeur of its sculptures, than for its applied decoration.

At Parma we have some remarkable work by Corregio. The cupola of San Giovanni is treated as Heaven. Christ is seen in glory, with a background of clouds, and is an extraordinarily successful example of foreshortening. Below are the Apostles, reclining in different attitudes on clouds and gazing upwards in rapt attention. This was painted in the year 152. Two years after the completion, Corregio carried out a similar scheme in the Cathedral of Parma. Here, too, the cupola presents a view of the Heavens, but with more ambitious grouping and with a most happy utilisation of the peculiar conditions of lighting. The dome is without a lantern, light being admitted through windows in the lower half. The subject of the painting is the Assumption of the Virgin. Christ is depicted in the upper half of the cupola coming forward through an angelic host to greet the Madonna, who in the lower half is borne upwards by the angels. Christ appears as the centre of light ; His mysterious effulgence sweeping downwards to the ascending group. Placed in the lower part between the windows are the Apostles gazing reverently and awe-struck on the scene, while behind them are genii bearing candelabra and other ornaments. In both cases the colouring is beautifully soft, well suited to the subjects.

In quite a different style is Corregio's work at the once wealthy Convent of San Paulo in the same city. Here the most striking painting is on the walls of the chapel, which tells the story of Diana returning from the chase. The vaulted ceiling is represented as a pergola, or trellised tunnel covered with vines. It is a mass of most realistic leaves and fruit. But here and there are openings in the foliage and trellis, through which a bright blue sky and fleecy clouds are seen. In these openings, silhouetted boldly against the heavens appear naked cupids, single or in couples, wrestling and playing, some bearing attributes of the chase. There are altogether sixteen of these figures, and their clear flesh tints produce a delightful harmony with the bright blue, the white clouds, and vivid mass of green broken up by the trellis work. It is charming in design, and quite a model in the harmonising of colouring and the handling of light and shade. Like his other work in Parma, this painting looks quite appropriate in its position.

Rubens was another master of colouring and the contrast of light and shade, with a firm grip of design, and the use of fore-shortening. When he chose, his ceiling painting was admirable, well adapted for decorative purposes, not giving the spectator the impression (as his great work in the Banqueting Hall, Whitehall, does) that he is cricking his neck to gaze on a badly hung picture. Excellent specimens of his better manner for this class of work adorned the ceilings of the lower and top galleries in the Jesuits' Church at Antwerp, which was struck by lightning in 1710, when Ruben's paintings were destroyed in the resulting fire. Happily the paintings had been copied by Jacob de Witt, and of these copies we possess copperplates engraved under De Witt's supervision. The foreshortening is very fine, and in. most cases the subjects are carefully chosen for treatment on ceilings, as our two reproductions show.

The blending of sculpture or carving and painting was, of course, very common in churches. Equally happy combinations of mosaic work and painting are to be seen in Siena, Venice, in St Peter's, Rome, and in our own St Paul's.

A peculiarity of the dome of St Paul's is that it is in three distinct parts. First we have the outer shell, or dome proper ; then a brick cone rising to the top of the dome, with elaborate timbering between the two, and within the cone the ellipsoidal cupola, which is supported from the vaults on eight columns. This cupola is open at the top, with a railed gallery running round it. Through the aperture the inside of the brick cone, which is gilded, is seen. Light pours in through elliptical windows in the cone, this light being derived chiefly from the lantern above. Wren intended that his cupola should be adorned with mosaics, but it was left bare of ornament for some years after completion, and then Sir James Thornhill was commissioned to cover the eight great spandrels with paintings, which he executed in grisaille. The figures were of colossal size and represented the miraculous con-version of St Paul; the punishment of Elymas the Sorcerer ; Paul at Lystra ; the conversion of the gaoler at Philippi ; Paul preaching at Athens ; the burning of the books of magic at Enesus ; Paul before Agrippa ; and his shipwreck. While Thornhill was engaged on this painting, standing on a scaffolding hundreds of feet above the floor, oblivious of everything except his work, he stepped back to judge the effect of some finishing touches and would have toppled over, had it not been for the promptness of his assistant, who dashed a brush full of colour on the painting. Thornhill darted forward and was saved. Good as was the design, the medium chosen and the immense height made the decoration quite ineffective. Moreover, the atmospheric influences soon damaged them, and they had to be restored in 1854. This was felt to be a mere make-shift, and steps were taken to decorate the interior in a fitting manner. Various schemes were suggested, but it was not until the eighties of last century that Wren's original idea was carried out, and the eight spandrels of the cupola filled in with mosaic. This work was executed by Salvialti from designs by leading British artists. The gigantic figures of St Matthew and St John are by G. F. Watts; those of St Mark and St Luke, by Brittan ; those of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, by A. Stevens. On the lower quarter at the shorter side of the octagon supporting the dome are mosaics by Sir W. B. Richmond : the N.E. represents the Crucifixion, the N.W. the Resurrection, the S.W. the Entombment, and the S.E. the Ascension. The vaulting and walls of the choir have been decorated in smalto, or glass mosaics, from designs by Sir W. B. Richmond. On the central panel over the apse is Christ enthroned, to the right and left stand recording angels. On the panels between the stone ribs of the roof in the apse, as well as the adjoining bay, are six figures of the virtues : Hope, Fortitude, Charity, Truth, Chastity and justice, all appropriately symbolised. In the upper windows of the apse we see the twenty-four Elders of the Revelations, with attendant angels. In the adjoining bay are panels with pictures of Noah's sacrifice and Melchizedek blessing Abraham. Above these are large panels showing the Sea giving up its Dead. In the ceiling of the choir are saucer domes over each of the three bays. The mosaic in the easternmost dome represents the Creation of the Birds, and the others represent respectively the Creation of the Fishes and the Beasts. On the four pendants in each bay are Herald Angels with extended arms ; while in the spaces between the clerestory windows on the north side are the Delphic and Persian Sybils, Alexander the Great, Cyrus, Abraham, angels, and Job and his three friends ; on the south side are David, Solomon, Aholiab, Bezaleel, Moses and Jacob. Adorning the spandrels of the arches of the east bay are angels with the instruments of the Passion ; on those of the central bay, the Temptation and the Annunciation ; and on those of the west bay, the Expulsion from Paradise and the Creation of the Firmament. In rectangular panels above the organ, Adam and Eve are shown in the garden of Eden. The colouring in these mosaics is good, though without the brilliance of the early Byzantine work, partly owing to the deeper tones, the larger admission of the tertiaries and more sparing use of gold. The method adopted is quite in the old style : rather coarse work in details, with perfect design. In this way a very pleasing effect being secured for decorations placed in such position and at such a height. The modern, smoother method, with very close joints, would not give the natural effect with mosaic pictures.

Art And Religion
The Art Of The Eighteenth Century Churches
Religious Architecture


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