himmel altar
View of the architectural model's painted ceiling

The church of Santa Isabel, in the parish of Lapa in Lisbon, is like a precious stone that’s kept in a dark box with a dull, dark-grey cover. The light that comes through the windows is largely absorbed by the matte, almost black ceiling and optically puts a heavy weight on the space, preventing it to breathe and develop its intended volume.
In fact, the first impression the visitor gets is bit depressing – undoubtedly just the opposite of what was and is intended: Everything in the space was designed to induce a feeling of upward buoyancy: True to the rules of Alberti, the architectural elements on the bottom order are optically heavier and darker than the ones of the upper oder, where the windows are, and the proximity of these windows to the edge of the vault, together with the angle of reflecting panels directly under those windows, leaves no doubt that the ceiling was meant to be a continuation of the movement in to light, of a very light hue, to reflect and evenly distribute the light to the space below.

My aim would be to complete the original architectural intent by replacing this smothering grey blanket with an open sky. The space will become very much warmer and vibrant, and will be much more attractive for spending some time in for meditation. Instead of the current cold, dull cap, it will have a joyous opening into a cosmic sky. The colors of the ceiling will echo and complement those used on the walls, will continue the unfolding from to warmer colors, maybe with a final twist back to an indigo blue for the plunge in to deep space.

Why me? What makes me think that I am the correct person to do this?

Before heeding the call to be an artist’ I studied art-history, with a heavy emphasis on paleochristian and Romanesque church architecture and another on baroque painting, particularly Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
-       The former gave me a lasting love for sacred spaces, which became on the three main concerns in my work as a photographer – the other two being landscapes and especially skyscapes.
-       The latter, Tiepolo, the great painter of ceilings, was a contemporary of construction of Santa Isabel – indeed, he spent the last years of his life in Madrid, at the court of Charles III, from 1761 until his death in 1770. He probably visited Lisbon during those years, and, if so, may well have seen the recently finished Santa Isabel – built in the most recent style od the time – relatively calm and understated classicism, after the ebullient excesses of late the Baroque!
These studies have, I believe, given me an understanding of the architectural issues at hand.

In the practical terms, the intent of my paintings since the beginning – some 40 years ago – has always been to put the viewer in a state of relaxed contemplation. I’m happy to say that from the plentiful feed-back I’ve received over the years I can claim some effectiveness in this.
Though I’ve never painted anything this size, my propensity for large formats has taken me to works of 3 x 21Meters. 
I have so far painted only one ceiling - and a small one at that (ca. 4x6m, in a castle in Switzerland - but I have no doubt that my technique of painting - in multiple thin layers - will be ideal for the conditions we have at Santa Isabel.

Philosophically, it is true that I am an agnostic, not a catholic. Not an atheist, but an agnostic. I also consider myself to be a deeply spiritual person and I find no contradiction in that. 
The sacred spaces I have seen throughout the world have given me a deep respect for the manifestations of our (human) need for spaces that induce the peacefulness and sense of dynamic spirituality necessary to lift our thoughts from the daily tread-mill to the higher values that make us human. It would be a great honor and pleasure for me to contribute to the completion, after more than 250 years, of such a space.

Michael Biberstein,
April 2010

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