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The History Behind Some of the World’s Most Beautiful Ceilings

By Sarah Buder

Sep 30, 2019

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The 17th-century Theological Hall makes up one of two sections of the magnificent library within the Strahov Monastery in Prague, Czech Republic.

Courtesy of White Lion Publishing

The 17th-century Theological Hall makes up one of two sections of the magnificent library within the Strahov Monastery in Prague, Czech Republic.

A book titled “The Art of Looking Up” details the significant stories of spectacular ceilings, from Sweden and Las Vegas to Spain and Iran.

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Whether or not you’re especially interested in architecture, traveling to an unfamiliar destination often involves at least some time spent marveling over impressive buildings and landmarks. The ways that structures have been designed throughout history and across cultures can reveal much about the societies and times in which they were constructed. A new book titled The Art of Looking Up (White Lion Publishing, 2019) focuses on one aspect in particular: the world’s most beautiful ceilings.

Divided into four thematic sections—Religion, Culture, Power, and Politics—the 240-page book surveys a collection of spectacular ceilings around the globe and shares their stories, as detailed by art history expert Catherine McCormack, along with vibrant photography. The book includes information and important historical context about popular overhead artworks such as the painted dome of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City (completed by Michelangelo in 1512); the Chihuly glass masterpiece on the ceiling of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas; and the striking stained-glass and stone interiors of Barcelona’s Sagrada Família (the still-unfinished basilica that marks Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí’s final design).

In addition to celebrating some of the world’s most famous ceilings, the book spotlights somewhat lesser-visited ceiling art in religious buildings, libraries, concert halls, and metro stations where mosaic tile masterpieces and intricate oil paintings will almost surely make you crane your neck. Here’s a look at just a few worth visiting from inside the pages of The Art of Looking Up.

The T-Centralen station in Stockholm, Sweden, was the city’s first underground station to receive ceiling art.

T-Centralen Metro Station

Stockholm, Sweden

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Beginning in the 1950s, a citywide project transformed a number of Stockholm’s commuter hubs into cultural spaces by infusing the underground metro stations with lively wall and ceiling art. (Around 150 artists have contributed mosaics, paintings, and sculptures to more than 90 of the city’s 110 metro stations to date.) T-Centralen, the city’s main subway hub, was the first location to feature tile-covered walls when it opened in 1957. About two decades later, the Finnish-Swedish artist Per-Olov Ultvedt made his mark on the space, adding blue-and-white ceiling murals inspired by the calming aesthetic of the Greek Isles. To visit Stockholm’s colorful subway system, nicknamed “the world’s longest art exhibit,” all you have to do is purchase a metro ticket.

The St. Petersburg church dedicated to Tsar Alexander II features a detailed shrine in his honor.

Church of the Resurrection of Christ 

St. Petersburg, Russia

This elaborate St. Petersburg landmark marks the spot where Tsar Alexander II, the emperor of Russia, was fatally assassinated in March 1881. Construction of the church, also known as the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, began in 1883 and took 24 years to complete. Its ceiling and interior walls are decorated with a slew of semi-precious stones such as jasper and topaz that together comprise a radiant mosaic spanning more than 75,350 square feet. As one of the main tourist attractions in St. Petersburg, this traditional Russian Orthodox church does not function as a full-time place of worship. Visitors can purchase tickets to explore the cathedral-and-memorial-turned-mosaics-museum during its designated hours of operation. 

In the library halls at the Strahov Monastery, detailed frescoes depict biblical stories about the importance of wisdom.

Strahov Monastery

Prague, Czech Republic

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Prague’s Strahov Monastery, which dates back to 1140, houses one of the world’s most beautiful libraries—with the second-oldest collection of books in the Czech Republic. Designed by Abbot Jeroným Hirnheim, the Strahov library contains two sections: the 17th-century Baroque Theological Hall and the 18th-century Classical Philosophical Hall. Inside both halls, ornate frescoes illustrate biblical scenes depicting the importance of acquiring wisdom. Visitors can purchase tickets for daily tours of the exquisite library halls, but group sizes are limited in order to protect the historic space.

The grand staircase at the Würzburg Residence sits below Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s frescoed vault.

Würzburg Residence

Würzburg, Germany

Built in southern Germany between 1720 and 1744 (and completed in 1780), this former residence of Johann Philipp Franz and Friedrich Karl von Schönborn—two successive prince bishops of Würzburg—is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inside the 18th-century Baroque palace, a staircase with an impressive unsupported-vaulted ceiling features a fresco by the Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. During the property’s designated seasonal hours, ticketed admission is available for self-led tours of various rooms in the residence. (Guided tours are also available in English and German.)

See the other locations featured in The Art of Looking Up, listed below:

  • Neonian Baptistery, Italy
  • Sagrada Família, Spain
  • Imam Mosque, Iran
  • Vatican Palace, Italy
  • Church of the Buckle, Turkey
  • San Pantalon, Italy
  • Debre Berhan Selassie Church, Ethiopia
  • Senso ̄-ji Temple, Japan
  • Palais Garnier, France
  • Burgtheater, Austria
  • Louvre Museum, France
  • Dalí Theatre-Museum, Catalonia
  • National Theatre, Costa Rica
  • Uffizi Gallery, Italy
  • Toluca Botanical Garden, Mexico
  • Bellagio Hotel and Casino, USA
  • Banqueting House, United Kingdom
  • Alhambra Palace, Spain
  • Palazzo del Te, Italy
  • Badal Mahal, India
  • Palazzo Barberini, Italy
  • Topkapı Palace, Turkey
  • Blenheim Palace, United Kingdom
  • Palazzo Chiericati, Italy
  • Royal Palace of Brussels, Belgium
  • Chinese Palace, Russia
  • Palazzo Farnese, Italy
  • Augsburg Town Hall, Germany
  • City Hall, Barcelona
  • Old Royal Naval College, United Kingdom
  • United Nations Office, Switzerland
  • Museum of the Revolution, Cuba
  • Palazzo Ducale, Italy
  • Capitol Building, USA

Buy it: $45, amazon.com

>>Next: 13 U.S. Music Halls That Raise the Bar

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