The Illusion of Space

Ceiling designs as a manifestation of architectural trickery in real spaces, drawing the spectator into the frame.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

Esther before Ahasuerus
Esther before Ahasuerus, 1620, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London


Rubens creates a theatrical setting within a domed hall that resembles a Roman pantheon. The interlocking stairs and platforms function as a stage where the Jewish Queen, Esther, pleads with King Ahasuerus to spare her people from annihilation.

Commissioned at the height of Rubens’s career, this oil sketch is one of forty designs for the ceiling decoration of the Jesuit Church of Antwerp that was destroyed by fire in 1718.





Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709)

Design for illusionistic ceiling decoration
Design for illusionistic ceiling decoration, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London


In this design of a cupola, Pozzo manipulates perspective to create the illusion of height. He was a skilled ceiling painter and devout Jesuit, and probably devised the design for the decoration of a church. His affiliation with the church was key to his conception of art as a means of stimulating religious zeal.

Pozzo’s immensely successful treatise Perspectiva Pictorum et Architectorum helped finance his ceiling frescoes for the famous church of Sant’Ignazio, Rome. A copy is displayed in this room.