Visions of Heaven: The Dome in European Architecture
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There's an ethereal magic to standing beneath a dome, neck craned, looking up at a vision of the heavens created by some long-ago figure of genius. From the Pantheon to the Hagia Sophia, the power of the dome seems transcendent. Photographer David Stephenson's magnificently kaleidoscopic images of dome interiors capture this evanescent drama, and make Visions of Heaven one of the most spectacularly beautiful books we've ever produced.
Traveling from Italy to Spain, Turkey, England, Germany, and Russia, among other countries, and photographing churches, palaces, mosques, and synagogues from the second to the early twentieth century, Stephenson's work amounts to a veritable typology of the cupola. His images present complex geometrical structures, rich stucco decorations, and elaborate paintings as they have never been seen before. Brilliantly calibrated exposures reveal details and colors that would otherwise remain hidden in these dimly lit spaces.
Visions of Heaven shows more than 120 images, including the Roman Pantheon, the Byzantine churches of Turkey, the great domes of the Renaissance, the decorative cupolas of the Baroque and the Rococo ages, and a nineteenth-century synagogue in Hungary.
domes.16 The heavenly insubstantiality of these domes can be understood as an architectural manifestation of the orthodox Islamic concept of God as absolute and eternal, as opposed to the world, which is, as architectural historian Camilla Edwards observes, “composed only of atoms and accidents which in the form of a Maqarnas dome would be indistinct units arranged in a complex manner and (like the universe) supported and kept whole by the will of God.”17 In Istanbul, later Islamic developments
classical-inspired iconography more apparent than in the dramatic crowd of figures in the meticulously painted fresco of the dome of San Sigismondo in Cremona. In 1441, the marriage between Francesco Sforza and Bianca Visconti at San Sigismondo had brought together two powerful ruling families, and the church was rebuilt in 1463 to commemorate the occasion. The frescoes (c. 1533–59) were executed by members of the Cremona School: Camillo Boccaccino (1511–1546), and Giulio (c. 1508–1573) and
other the space is allowed to breathe between the circle of clouds and the outer figures looking out or down over a delicately ornamented fence. This composition—crowding the figures into one half of the picture—is a fresh departure, intensifying the drama. Egid Asam’s fine gilt stuccowork with its intricately modeled classical figures gleams like bronze. The subject is a glorious one—the Church Triumphant—although Cosmas Asam’s playfulness is evident in the Weingarten Abbey (see p. 137)
and logic have been closely allied.8 Finally, of course, these domes are images of heaven, with all its attendant motifs and associations: angels, infinity, transcendence, and salvation. As an artist, Stephenson is only in mid-career: it is abundantly clear that he has many productive years, and projects, ahead of him. That said, I can only marvel at how elegantly all his previous concerns are crystallized and summarized in his domes work. The experience of the dome is one of an ideal realm—a
45 Catedral Siguenza, Spain, begun 12th century and completed by 1495, rebuilt after 1945 46 Basílica de San Vicente Avila, Spain, begun c. 1109, crossing vault 14th century 47 Sala de las Dos Hermanas, Alhambra Granada, Spain, c. 1333–54 48 Sala de los Abencerrajes, Alhambra Granada, Spain, c. 1333–91 49 Sala de la Justicia, Alcázar Seville, Spain, c. 1427 50 Salón des Embajadores, Alcázar Seville, Spain, c. 1427 51 Capilla Condestable, Catedral Burgos, Spain, 1482–94, Simón