What's the Practical Function of Ceiling Medallions?

Perri Ormont Blumberg
·2 min read

Ceiling medallions aren't only in the hallowed halls of historic homes art museums, but a popular design flourish you may see in many people's homes, or even have in your own. The raised ceiling ornament typically accompanies a chandelier or other lighting feature and can add an element of visual interest to your space. Modern or antique, Victorian or Baroque, ceiling medallions come in a dizzying array of styles and the designs are as diverse as the historic structures and homes they grace.

But, why, exactly were ceiling medallions dreamt up in the first place? As it turns out, these eye-catching accouterments actually served a very specific function. "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," design historian Gail Caskey Winkler, a retired University of Pennsylvania lecturer and author of Victorian Interior Decoration: American Interiors, 1830-1900, told Apartment Therapy, speaking of the role of such medallions in the homes of the wealthy in the 19th century.

In addition to being decorative, ceiling medallions served a purpose prior to the advent of light bulbs in the late 1800s. "The byproduct of [lighting accessories like whale-oil lamps and gas lanterns] was soot, and the medallion, the center, helped conceal what could have been a ring of soot on the ceiling," said Winkler. "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." Little did we know this interesting backstory to this popular raised ceiling art. Next time we gaze up at a ceiling medallion, we'll definitely remember its one-time practical use.

We'll definitely, also, be grateful that gas lanterns are a thing of the past. And that we can simply flip a switch — or holler at Alexa to turn on the lights.