Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
“Lift up thine eyes.” In a Catholic Church—at least until very recently—there was a reason for this: the ceiling was, more often than not, beautifully illuminated and decorated. And even in the most austere and spartan churches the ceiling revealed—at least in the Latin (Roman) Rite—a clue that we were all sailing together on Peter’s barque, since it was, by design, shaped like the hull of a ship.
The most obvious and well-known of all church ceilings is, of course, the Sistine Chapel—which for good measure, also has as a sort of extension “The Last Judgement” by Michelangelo on the back wall. However, such masterworks are rare.
And given the shape of the latest spate of post-Second-Vatican-Council churches, it’s unlikely you’ll find much to compare with what came before. One example is my own parish: shaped “in-the-round,” its roof resembles a washing-machine agitator or a floppy oversized beach hat. Inside, the ceiling itself is stucco white. In an odd bit of idiosyncratic similarity, our church back in New Jersey had the same bland ceiling.
But what does any of this matter? Well, I’d argue plenty.
First, these whitewashed ceilings eliminate any chance of “teaching moments”—that is instead of lifting up one’s eyes to see, for example, Christ the Pantocrator (Basilica San Marco, Venice), you get instead something that resembles a family rec-room back at home: a drop-ceiling with recessed lights and a collection of brownish water-stains.
This is not, of course, to throw all circle-centered churches in the “what-might-have-been” bin. The Our Lady of Fatima Shrine Basilica in Youngstown, New York (built in 1967) which I’ve written about here boasts a colossal domed ceiling that replicates a diaphanous map of the Western Hemisphere.
And, of course, there’s no arguing with the circular Our Lady of the Martyrs in Rome (aka the Pantheon) in Rome, with its enormous oculus.
But in the United States at least Church ceilings have come down, literally and figuratively—most especially in newer, circular churches—no longer do they contain artwork to be looked up at and admired, but merely something to be politely ignored.
The Church need not be “in-the-round” to suffer this sort of fate. I recall that our family’s parish, Our Lady of Lebanon (now closed), underwent a renovation in 1980. The ceiling had previously contained various images such as the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the “IHS” monogram, as well as the “MR” (“Maria Regina”), along with other religious symbols. However, the renovation simply painted over all of the above (and more) so that a plain, white ceiling replaced what was once a repository of Catholic images.
What was gained by that?
In good news, the newly painted ceiling still retained its shape of a ship’s hull—though it seems a staggering thought to try and imagine what it would have cost to go about reshaping the ceiling.
When we talk about the positive decorative effect of a church’s ceiling, one need not compare it always to the Sistine Chapel—a bar so high so as not to be touched. For example: the famous Sainte-Chapelle in Paris boasts a modest navy colored ceiling punctuated by innumerable golden stars (the same pattern is found in the crypt chapel of the same church).
Marcel Breuer’s unorthodox Saint John’s Abbey Church obtained a unique ceiling not by heaping loads of meretricious paintings, but by the revelation of raw surfaces, giving the sacred place the feel almost of one of the early Roman catacomb churches.
In England, both Westminster Abbey and Salisbury Cathedral—which were originally Catholic institutions until the Anglicans had the greed (and good sense) to confiscate (rather than condemn) them—feature ceilings where the form-follows-function: the vaulting and ribbing above call us to lift up not only our eyes, but our hearts and minds in wonder at how mankind erected such stunning tributes to the Almighty long before something like a John Deere industrial crane was invented.
Back here in Western New York, Venerable Msgr. Nelson H. Baker erected the Basilica of Our Lady of Victory with a dome so big that, at the time of its construction (1930), it was the largest dome in all of America outside Washington, D.C.
But “Father Baker” went further: since he knew many if not most of his parishioners worked at the “dark, satanic mills” of the steel companies, he decided that in his basilica the color scheme would grow from dark to light as the eye traveled upward. For example: for the pews he chose the darkest woods. On the walls, the nearly-life-sized stations of the cross are unpainted, but illuminated by electric light. And as one looks up into the colossal dome, the eye is rewarded by light—that most indescribable noun which took Dante all of his Paradiso to try and define.
I don’t know why, exactly, so many churches have jettisoned the painted ceiling (save the cost of paying an artist), or, stranger still, why so many have turned aside from the traditional ship’s-hull design in favor of something that looks like a child’s spinning-top. However, of this much I am sure: the words of my father—“Those who discard tradition do so at their own peril.” And this includes the traditional church ceiling.