For centuries, ceilings have provided artists with the perfect canvas for creating some of the most beautiful works on the planet. Michelangelo's masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, is arguably the world's most famous ceiling, but it's far from the only overhead space deserving of your attention. Here are five stunning ceilings any art lover won't want to miss.
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at Temple of Heaven (Beijing, China)
Built in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty, the massive Temple of Heaven complex includes three major buildings: the Imperial Vault of Heaven, the Circular Mound Altar, and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The latter, with its conical framework and triple eaves, is often considered the crown jewel. In 1545, its three-tiered roof was painted from top to bottom in blue, yellow, and green — representing the heavens, the emperor, and the Earth, respectively. During Emperor Qianlong's reign from 1735 to 1796, however, the roofs were repainted blue to solely honor the heavenly realms. The Hall of Prayer often hosted emperors for harvest festivals; the emperors would make sacrifices and pray for another good year of crops.
Built entirely without nails, the circular temple is rich in Chinese symbolism. It highlights the special role the emperor plays in the relationship between heaven and Earth. When visitors gaze up, they'll see intricate dragon and phoenix patterns across the ceiling. Meanwhile, the 28 wooden columns supporting the entire structure represent the seasons, months, and hours of the day. Both the intricately decorated columns and the ceiling highlight the lunar and Chinese zodiacal constellations.
Peacock Room at Castello di Sammezzano (Leccio, Italy)
If you're already planning to visit the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, make sure to plan a side trip to the far more colorful Peacock Room inside the Castello di Sammezzano in Tuscany, located about three hours north by car. Nobleman and politician Ferdinand Panciatichi Ximenes d'Aragona inherited the castle in the mid-1800s and redesigned the building in the Moorish style, using intricate patterns and varying shades of cyan and gold. The result was a breathtaking and dynamic framework, which suited the colorful, eccentric personality he was known for.
The castle has 365 rooms, one for each day of the year, all designed in varying styles — but the Peacock Room is the true standout. Just like the bird it was named after, the room features a mixture of complex colors and designs, which are visible in its gilded leather and intricate, pendant-paneled ceiling. Interestingly, the castle briefly served as a luxury hotel (replete with apartments, a spa, and a country club) after World War II. The building was abandoned in the 1990s, but efforts are underway to save the historic Castello di Sammezzano; in 2020, it made the list of the Seven Most Endangered Cultural Sites in Europe.
Tomb of Hafez (Shiraz, Iran)
Persian architecture is often known for buildings featuring geometrical layouts and intricate mosaic ceilings. One of the best examples of this is the Tomb of Hafez, a palatial mausoleum built in honor of the 14th-century poet Hafez, who is considered the "Shakespeare of Iran" and is a source of great national pride. According to many Iranians, every home should have a Quran and Hafez's complete volume of works.
The monument is located under an open pavilion on the grounds of the Musalla Gardens, surrounded by peaceful shimmering pools, rows of potted flowers, and orange trees. The pavilion features a gorgeous ceiling covered by a mosaic of enameled titles. When visitors gaze up, they'll marvel at the captivating patterns in hues of teal, blue, and dark coral red.
Solna Centrum Metro Station (Stockholm, Sweden)
It's not often that subway riders are treated to dramatic works of art during their morning commute, but the ceiling at the Solna Centrum Metro Station provides plenty to ponder. The station features a dramatic, cavern-like framework and blood-red ceiling. In stark contrast, the lower walls are painted green and feature a collection of designs highlighting Sweden's natural spaces. The colors were chosen as a political statement about several of the most debated social issues in 1970s Sweden: the environment, deforestation, and the depopulation of rural areas.
And it's not the only metro station in Stockholm to feature fabulous ceiling art. In the mid-20th century, the city recruited around 150 independent artists to turn Stockholm's metro stations into impressive cultural spaces. For the price of a metro ticket, anyone can enjoy the amazing commuter spaces dubbed "the world's longest art gallery."
Louisiana Old State Capitol (Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
From the outside, Louisiana's Old State Capitol building resembles a twin-towered, Gothic castle. Although the building is no longer used for formal purposes, the "Castle of Louisiana" still receives plenty of visitors, as it now houses the state's Museum of Political History. And while the building may impress with its stunning architecture, grand spiral staircase, and historical artifacts inside, its most dramatic feature requires visitors to look up.
The capitol's domed, multicolored ceiling is made up of thousands of individual pieces of colored, stained glass. During the day, light streams through the glass and casts glowing red, blue, yellow, and orange shadows around the room. Admission to the museum is free, so don't miss this 17th-century masterpiece.