The study of the heavens has a long and rich historiography. While some may think of history as the inevitable march of that thing we like to call ‘progress,’ the historical study of the stars would read more like an oscillating graph. Some civilizations were closer to the scientific mark than others. The Mayans, for instance, knew much about the precise movements of the planets. On the other hand, we have the early medieval Christians, who believed the night sky was akin to a painted dome, which they called the ‘firmament,’ as described in Genesis 1:6 - 8. And thus it is that we get so many references to that ‘vault of stars’ above us, like it were the roof of a stage and not an endless expanse of space.
Belief in the firmament gradually affected the design of Gothic churches, structures that were thought to be embodiments of heaven on earth. Heaven was brought down to us in the light that pierced so many tall windows, and in the star spangled ceilings of so many Gothic cathedrals. Stars that were gilded in an azure sky of deep blue. Some of these heavenly roofs remain, one notable example surviving among the arches of Saint Chapelle in Paris.
Later, the starry ceilings gave way to the more literal depictions of heaven during the Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo periods; scenes in which angels float among clouds, the Virgin Mary shines resplendent and beckoning, and (famously in the Sistine Chapel) God reaches out to Adam from above.
The church ceilings of Sevilla were different. Some were smooth, painted with trompe L’oeil flourishes meant to look like plaster moldings. Others were festooned with ribbons, all manner of flowers, and set about with small cherubs, like one of Marie Antoinette’s daydreams. Many of them featured panels showing a biblical or historical event, lost amongst the surrounding doves and gilded detail. One ceiling in particular stands out in my memory: a gold ceiling with every dome, arch and vault covered in pure white plasterwork flowers and scrolls. It is no wonder that this roof belongs to a church of the name: Santa Maria de las Nieves, or Our Lady of the Snow. They were all so beautiful. Nothing is like that moment when I walk into a church and stop… Looking up, breath taken by the majesty of the art above me.
All these ceilings looked to me like heaven.
CONVENTO DE LA MERCED
(now part of the Museum of Fine Arts)
SANTA MARÍA DE LAS NIEVES
BASILICA DE LA MACARENA
HOSPITAL DE LOS VENERABLES
CAPILLA DE SAN JOSÉ
I could not resist including this church.
The ceiling is in need of repair, but there is something so hauntingly beautiful about the black and peeling ceiling set against the ridiculously ornate golden altarpiece. It reminds me somewhat of Charles Dicken's description of Miss Havisham...