Ah, the baroque painted ceiling. I don’t think it’s possible to visit a castle, palace, villa or historical government building in Europe without seeing at least one, if not many. The most well-known examples can be found in churches from the 17th and 18th century in Rome or the Palace of Versailles in France. These ceilings, made for the richest and most powerful people on earth at the time had the specific purpose of making you, the commoner, feel dazzled yet helpless and dependent on the church or the king. For frequent visitors to historical Europe, odds are when you saw your first baroque painted ceiling you were in awe, which was exactly what the painters and their patrons intended. “Wow! Look at that.” You say, pointing up excitedly . “Let’s take a picture!!!”
Yet the grandeur and majesty of these paintings gradually wore off to the point where you barely look up anymore, especially when you realize that not all of these were crafted with the same high quality and sense of wonder as the earliest Roman examples. In later years it seems that lesser princes or poorer churches just said to their artists “Yeah a painted ceiling with some mythological or religious scene is required decoration now. Just…put whatever up there and call it a day.”
This brings to to the modern era where, either because of wars destroying original paintings, or because some crazy patron wanted to do something different, we now have painted ceilings in the baroque tradition with a modern flourish.
Icarus Atlanticus (1987-88), the abstract ceiling painting in the Maurithuis, is one of expressionist artist Ger Lataster’s masterpieces. This modern marvel stands out in contrast to the Baroque building and painting collection of the Mauritshuis. Yet Lataster, inspired by the colors of 17th century ceiling paintings, created a piece that drew a lot of attention, both positive and negative.
One interpretation of Icarus Atlanticus is that it was intended to challenge visitors with the notion of modern art in a “traditional” space. People come to the Mauritshuis to see baroque works of art that were considered novel, avant-garde and sometimes offensive to the people of the 17th century. Thus, seeing an expressionist work of art in such a building is meant to remind the visitor that what is seen as radical now will in time become regarded as traditional.¹
Icarus Atlanticus, though very different from the art that surrounds it, is nonetheless harmonious with its environment. Yes, it is out of place, but I think, whether or not you like abstract art, this is one painting ceiling that will once again make you look up and say “wow!”.
1. Denslagen, Wim. Romantic Modernism: Nostalgia in the World of Conservation, Amsterdam University Press (2009).
2. Image of baroque ceiling taken from romeartlover.it. Image of Icarus Atlanticus taken from theartserver.org