She Looks Up to the Beauty of Great Ceiling Art

<i> Morgan, of La Jolla, is a magazine and newspaper writer</i>

I am constantly floored by the number of travelers who don’t care about ceilings. They gape at domes. They nod at murals. But they rarely spend a lot of time staring at overhead art.

An exception is the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Guides say: “Look up.” Necks crane on cue. Michelangelo, most travelers figure, is worth the strain.

Also worth it are the triumphs of unknown artists and craftsmen who have labored on intricate ceilings throughout the world.


The Great Wall of China is a great wall. I would not want to have missed it. But the ceiling of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing is also thrilling. Its 15th-Century planners laced straight lines and circles in a bold structure of wood trimmed with gilt and topped with blue-glazed tiles.

Puzzle of Pillars

No nails were used in construction. It is like walking into a puzzle of pillars and posts. Angular shafts of red and gold rise into clouds of white, lime green and sky blue. Photographers sink to the floor to shoot up. The Temple of Heaven, as old as the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing, is set in a 667-acre park of ancient pines and cypresses.

The ceiling of the cathedral in Siena is reason enough to go back to Tuscany. On Easter morning I joined Italian throngs as they pushed inside the malachite green-and-white marble sanctuary.

After the service I moved to the front row and fed coins into a box that flooded the domed ceiling with electricity. Tourists with cameras timed their flashes to the two-minute light from above.

Among myriad great ceilings in Italy are the dazzling Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna and the vaulted, frescoed ceiling of the Farmacia Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

Dominican Chapel

Not your basic drugstore, this ornate pharmacy was built as a Dominican chapel in the 14th Century. It is said that the Medicis mixed their poisons there.

Today it smells of flowers, of scents brewed from cypress and lily. Baroque angels and gilded crowns adorn the rich cabinetry of this museum-like shop at 16 Via della Scala.

Just as fascinating to me as British formal gardens are the cream-and-ivory moldings and scrolls on the ceilings of England’s stately homes.

Two treasures: Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath, an easy bus or tube ride from London, and the 15th-Century estate called Knole in Kent. The British Tourist Authority prints an up-to-date list of homes that are open each season.

Angels on High

The soaring timber roof of Westminster Hall, part of Westminster Palace in London, frames a superb hammer beam ceiling carved with flying angels. The hall is 240 feet long and 70 feet wide, with a roof that crests at 90 feet. In the Middle Ages the hall was the site of joustings and royal Christmas feasts. Today, massed carol choirs sing lustily in December.

Whether an artful ceiling is found in a Japanese shrine, an Egyptian tomb or a 19th-Century tearoom in Buenos Aires, part of the joy in looking up is sitting down.

It is pleasant to pause in the pursuit of travel and rest the toes, the spine, the shoulders. The influence of the Moors guarantees intricate ceilings that hang like delicate stalactites, whether in Morocco or Spain.

Other good sights for inspired ceilings are old missions, mosques, temples, theaters and opera houses. In warmer climates--from Singapore to Nairobi to the Caribbean--the winning feature of any room or veranda is a humming ceiling fan.

Southwest Ceiling

Builders in the United States have not been assembling ceilings as long as people in other parts of the world, but every state has winners. I like the Southwest timbers called vigas in the ceilings of New Mexico lodgings such as La Posada de Albuquerque, the first hotel Conrad Hilton built in his native state.

I admire the gold-leaf lobby ceiling of the Arizona Biltmore, which is marking its 60th year in a palm-lined oasis in Phoenix.

In St. Louis there’s a masterwork at the restored Union Station, once the busiest railroad terminal in America.

In Los Angeles I sit and stare at the renovated Biltmore Hotel lobby ceiling, a gem of the 1920s. The high arches were hand-painted by Italian artist Giovanni Smeraldi, whose work also graces the Vatican and the White House.

Two of my favorite ceilings are at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City and at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Big Island of Hawaii. Though an ocean apart, they have this in common: Their ceilings slide open to the sky.