The Fascinating Reason Why Ceiling Medallions Exist

published Apr 26, 2021
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You can often recognize a Victorian home from the street: Its elaborate architectural details, from fanciful trim work to stained glass windows, are a dead giveaway. But Victorian interiors were just as full of decorative flourishes, from luxuriant furniture to ornate molding and plasterwork — including ceiling medallions. 

What is a ceiling medallion?

While ornamental details like cornice or crown moulding may frame a room, a ceiling medallion commands even more attention overhead, as a centerpiece surrounding a hanging light fixture.

Ceiling medallions weren’t exclusive to Victorian homes — they appeared in U.S. homes as early as the 1700s, before falling out of fashion in the early 20th century — but they peaked in popularity during the mid- to late-19th century. And they were most common in the parlors of wealthy homeowners. 

“If you had a ceiling medallion, it was because you had a central hanging fixture of some sort, and that in itself would have denoted a certain status,” says design historian Gail Caskey Winkler, a retired University of Pennsylvania lecturer and author of several books on Victorian design. “Most people did not have what we call today chandeliers.”   

Depending on the home and the time period, a ceiling medallion could be fairly simple: a few concentric, raised rings around the light fixture, for example, in a circle or oval, sculpted on site by a skilled plasterer. “Those early ones are pretty classical, a very simple circle,” Winkler says. 

Deeper into the 19th century, ceiling medallions started getting larger and more elaborate to keep pace with the fussy furnishings beneath them. “By the time you get to mid-century, it’s the height of what in furniture is called the Rococo Revival style, with all those curves and leaves and flowers carved onto the furniture,” Winkler says. “[Ceiling medallions] get bigger and they get more ornate.”

The Peter Forney House in Lincoln County, North Carolina

What is the purpose of a ceiling medallion?

Aside from adding visual interest overhead and impressing guests, ceiling medallions — or centers, as they were also known — had a very useful purpose, Winkler says.

Before the light bulb, all forms of indoor lighting — from candles to whale-oil lamps to gas and kerosene lanterns — involved a flame, Winkler says. “The byproduct of all of those was soot, and the medallion, the center, helped conceal what could have been a ring of soot on the ceiling,” she says. “That’s why the medallions got to be so large — they’re three dimensional in the way in which they’re formed, and the reason is to kind of hide the soot.”  

Despite Victorian trends toward extravagant detail and polychrome palettes, a lot of ceiling medallions were simply painted white. “While ceilings began to get treated decoratively in the last half of the 19th century, with wallpaper or stenciling,” Winkler says, “the centers were often painted just a single color, usually a light color, for a very simple reason: You could repaint it when it got dirty.”  

What are ceiling medallions made of? 

Historically, ceiling medallions were made of plaster, often expertly sculpted right on site. “Plasterers were so skilled, they could make a mold and run fresh plaster with that mold, following the line of the ceiling that they wanted the center to take, and create the center right there at the size and specifications of the client,” Winkler says. 

Later in the 19th century, plaster ceiling medallions were mass produced, so a homeowner could order one from a catalog and have a plasterer affix the piece to the ceiling. “All of these really ornate centers that you begin to see in the mid-19th century and in the late-19th century, those are all cast — they’re almost all factory-made by then,” Winkler says. And as tin ceilings caught on, so did tin ceiling medallions.  

Homeowners looking to restore a damaged plaster medallion might get help from an unlikely source, Winkler says. “Go to someone who works with ornate picture frames, because they’re used to dealing with pieces of a frame that may be missing,” she says. “They have to take a mold from another part of the frame, where the piece is intact, and they can use that mold then to cast a new piece.” The same principle applies with a symmetrical ceiling medallion.

And if a center is missing or damaged beyond repair, reproduction ceiling medallions are now available in materials like fiberglass or wood. “The difference between selling them ready-made in fiberglass today and ready-made in plaster 150 years ago, it’s just moved on to a modern material, that’s all,” Winkler says.