The advice, “don’t forget to look up,” was the best tip I got before I spent a month cruising the Louvre in 2014. It changed my traveling art pilgrim’s perspective. It made my heart open and my soul expand.
It was a euphoric experience in Rome. I was awed and seduced by the glory overhead, revelations just waiting to be noticed. When artistic geniuses put forth their best effort into visual redemption, they deliver. Spare a thought for what it takes to create this work, the skill and dexterity that has to be married to the physical challenge of working upside down.
Sometimes it’s a specific element, like trompe l’oeil, that makes the magic happen.
Sometimes it’s pure pattern, color, and light.
Sometimes it all about showing off temporal power and might; the doves from the coat of arms of the Doria Pamphilj dynasty or the battle victories of the Colonna.
I am partial to the stories of gods and goddesses rollicking in sylvan glades, Hercules in action, and astrological symbols (hey, I’m a former hippie).
It’s different from works on canvas. I never warmed up to Vasari (painter and author of Lives of the Artists) until I saw his frescoed ceilings in the Vatican. It was a revelation. The stiff pomposity of his large canvas works was nowhere to be found in the gauzy-edged, joyful overhead renderings. Biblical stories are a favorite theme. I don’t know how much time the popes spent on their back, but I am sure their mistresses were grateful.
I’ve always associated the notion of heaven with gazing up whether it’s a view of blue skies, sunlight streaming in ribbons through the clouds, or a night sky strewn with stars.
We instinctively raise up that which we venerate. There’s reason for thrones and podiums and altars; to remind you that you are in the presence of something greater than yourself. There’s a reason people cram the Vatican Museums to bursting and all surge in one direction; the Sistine Chapel. Imagine, in a world lit only by fire you could look up and see light and color and beauty instead of darkness.
Mirrors and binoculars don’t work for me, but I have a few successful strategies for the ubiquitous crick-in-your-neck issue.
- Stop, look down and to the left and right. Pause. Go back for more.
- Take photos where permitted. Your phone on selfie mode works great! You can take excellent photos without doing a backbend.
- Lean on a stone wall or marble pillar, arch your back, and tilt your chin up. If the wall surfaces are frescoed, don’t do this.
- Find a pew, slide down until your neck is supported, and stare to your heart’s content.
Sometimes the painting overhead is a culmination of a space entirely given over to beauty and inspiration. Visual hope. When it’s done right, it’s full immersion, like when the Baptists go down to the river, and you are forever changed.