Under Giotto’s ceiling

June 14, 2011

Ever since I saw Giotto’s beautiful ceiling in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua a few years ago, I’ve wanted something of that beauty in my daily life. To sit under a lapis sky studded with golden stars, angels and Madonnas looking down to bless those below.

Last winter I went to the hardware store with a book about Giotto in hand. The woman at the paint counter helped me match the blue (something called “Electric Storm”) and I brought home enough to paint the ceiling of my small study – it’s perhaps 9 x11, with a big window looking out to a covered porch. Right now the wisteria climbing the porch’s post is in full bloom and I love looking up from my desk to watch hummingbirds at work in the flowers.

The paint sat in the workshop for more than a year. I couldn’t bring myself to begin to paint. So much was happening in my life and there never seemed to be time to drape old sheets over the shelves and furniture and actually bring this particular project to life.

A few weeks ago, I finally applied three coats of “Electric Storm” to the white ceiling of my study. To say that John helped is an understatement. My style is careless and his is meticulous. He followed me, repairing my mistakes.

Then we spent a week or so trying to figure out the best way to paint on the stars. Would we use gold leaf? A stencil? Freehand? At one point, I desperately considered stickers.

I decided on a particular eight-sided star, partly influenced by Giotto and partly by the painted monasteries of Bukovina (you will be able to read about these in my forthcoming book, in a chapter where I try to find traces of my paternal grandfather who came from Bukovina). John cut a careful template and plotted the best way to arrange the pattern on my ceiling. There would be ten stars altogether, in four rows, two of two stars and two of three.

He measured and marked the placement with green painters tape. He held the template and I traced the stars with a white pencil crayon. I waited a day and then mixed some paint from those little containers you can buy in a craft shop – I have many of them for painting flower pots and cloth. (Forrest made me a floor cloth using these, featuring a saint on horseback inspired by the painted monasteries of Bukovina!) I used a matte dark yellow mixed with metallic gold for the first coat and followed that with a second coat of straight metallic gold. I just did the second coat this morning.

So right now I’m sitting at my desk, listening to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing “Cease, ruler of the day, to rise” from Handel’s opera Hercules, under a ravishing blue sky lit by stars. It’s not the Scrovegni Chapel with frescoes on the walls narrating the Annunciation, the Passion of Christ, the Resurrection;  but it’s beautiful and the stories surrounding me — pictures drawn by my children, an elk skull, birds nests, our wonderful dog Lily’s pelvis, books that have taught me how to live — amount to a life. My life, under Giotto’s ceiling.