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Library Ceiling Provides Inspiration From Above

November 10, 1994|LEONARD REED | Leonard Reed is a Times staff writer

SANTA PAULA — The giant beams are heavy and black and smell like mildew. They were sawed from the trunks of once-fragrant Spanish fir trees, cut down in Granada, Spain, maybe 400 years ago. They litter a sunny field here.

Betraying any look of disarray, however, are the white numbers painted on them: 27, 27-A, 28, 28-A. The numbers are a guide: snap-it-together diagram points by which the beams will line up, do what they were cut to do and fulfill their somewhat godly destiny of supporting a ceiling.

Godly ceilings? This one will be when installed at the new library of Thomas Aquinas College. Students here not only submit to the rigors of a great-books curriculum but do so in a context of truth rendered divinely. A text as remote as Boethius' "Consolation of Philosophy" certainly will find a more dignified scholarship beneath a ceiling that was originally installed in a Granada monastery.

God makes no representational appearance in this ceiling, however, and images typically associated with narrative art of the 1600s are absent. The beams support simple foot-square panels whose green, yellow and red painted motifs are repeated, varying only by the artisan's hand, for a decorative effect. Unlike Europe's great cathedral ceilings, this ceiling is a churchly relic. Owing to the forces of history and a rapacious art marketplace, this ceiling took an odd itinerancy in getting here.

All 130 feet of it were, in fact, installed in a monastery of the Discalzed Order from the early 1620s until 1836, when Spain's increasingly secular government got sticky fingers and dispossessed all religious orders of real property. The monastery became a government building in Granada and at one point served as a jail. Few inmates in history have enjoyed such a view.

Enter William Randolph Hearst, who, among other things, inhaled world art at a rate only limited by San Simeon's storage buildings. Hearst's bird dog in Europe, the distinguished architectural historian Arthur Byne, had spotted the ceiling and learned that its building was scheduled for demolition in 1932. Hearst bought it, received it in a series of numbered crates in 1933 and put it into storage.

The ceiling was but one of 160 complete ceilings Hearst would purchase from all over Europe. It was also one of perhaps 40 that went uncrated, uninstalled. It just sat in the dark, damp air and, in places, got eaten by rats.

But the ceiling's somber beauty, curvy corbel upon curvy corbel carved deeply by the individual hands of 17th-Century artisans, persists. Markings of the makers are everywhere.

At beam 21A, two Stars of David are sliced into the end post that was sunk into the monastery's concrete. Even people acting Catholic under Spain's dominating Christian culture of the 17th Century managed fidelity to other views, and what better a place to state such timeless truth than in the commission of holy carpentry?

A few years ago, Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, William Clark of Paso Robles, needed some ceilings. He bought this one from the Hearst estate but elected, ultimately, not to install it in his lavish home.

He gave it to Thomas Aquinas College. There was some discussion at the time over whether the ceiling would be suspended for view, as an applique of sorts, or function as the new library's actual center hall ceiling. Happily, it will be the real thing.

This week, beam after half-ton beam was being hoisted 35 feet into position, screwed into place by countersunk steel rods. Original painted panel boards, some whose paint and underlying plaster jesso needed restoring, were readied for mounting.

Not all of the crated ceiling pieces will be used--perhaps a third will remain in the field when the job is complete. Disposition of these holy leftovers is yet to be decided. But they, too, may find a fitting destiny.

Norman Neuerburg, the noted art historian overseeing the installation, has a peculiar appreciation of ceilings. He sleuthed out an Islamic ceiling buried at Goodwill Industries in Los Angeles some years ago and is attempting to install it in his house. More notable, perhaps, is the fact that he designed 12 ceilings in the Getty Museum's hall of antiquities.

Neuerburg just doesn't believe things die with age, even if they don't get used every time around. He pulls from his pocket a glass jar stuffed with wood shavings--curly blond pieces of heartwood from rod-drilling into the blackened moldy beams. He opens it, sniffs, smiles and passes it to a visitor.

The stunning scent is of spearmint, lemon, pepper, menthol: a fragrant meadow in spring. An Eden.

Nearby a workman buzz-saws a beam ending for a trim fit. He watches apparently desiccated wood leak fresh, amber, viscous sap--a bleeding so profuse and pungent as to collapse the passage of four centuries altogether. It is, in a word, divine. It seems, if you will, sign enough that this itinerant but grand ceiling carries with it sufficient life to again hover over scholars seeking a holy wisdom.

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