Heaven of delight

Where the Vatican-city has the Sistine Chapel with the stunning and worldwide admired Michelangelo ceiling, then Belgium has he Royal Palace with its grandiose beetle infected ceiling!

At the invitation of most unlikely hosts, the king and queen of Belgium, the artist Jan Fabre decorated, back in 2002, the principal hall with the wing cases of almost a million Asian jewel beetles.

What seemed designed to shock became a work of art that provokes admiration and above all astonishment for its beauty and originality. The artist, Jan Fabre, who sculptures, draws and produces theater, dance and opera, has used the glowing beetle carapaces to create an enormous mosaic that covers the ceiling niches of the 19th-century Hall of Mirrors. For a centerpiece he has made the beetles crawl down to cover every inch of the main chandelier.

The effect is dazzling. Laid out in multiple patterns, turning the once classic and formal hall into an enchanted space, vibrating with colors and shapes that change with the movement of each viewer. Depending on the angle of the light, the wing cases shine in fluorescent green, turn blue and shift again to emerald green, then to ochre or to a deep, velvet moss color. The mosaic's texture also evolves. From some points the shells seem soft as feathers, from other spots they resemble a daunting layer of scales. The overall impression is one of opulent splendor.

He is convinced that this skin will last far longer than paint: ''The wing cases of the jewel beetles are made of chitin, one of the hardest, most imperishable materials we know. They consist of wafer-thin platelets that capture, reflect and transform light. Oil paint fades; the shell will keep its original colors.''

It's upon the request of the queen herself, that Fabre was invited to the palace. The queen wanted to bring contemporary Belgian art into the 19th century palace as the last artist to work for the palace was Auguste Rodin more than a century ago.

The queen's target was the Hall of Mirrors, whose decoration was never completed apart from the marble and gold patterns on the walls. Mr. Fabre and a team of almost 30 young assistants worked for three months to apply the swirls of carapaces to the ceiling and the high niches. They honored Queen Paola with a large P.

There were some tense moments when it came to pasting thousands of shells onto the chandelier in the center of the hall. ''At first the queen was a bit afraid for her chandelier,'' Mr. Fabre said. ''But it was essential. We tried, but without that, we only had a decorated ceiling that was flat.'' The beetle-clad chandelier, which now looks like a giant, rather unsettling insect itself, makes all the difference, Mr. Fabre said, because ''it sucks the eye toward the ceiling and makes the entire work three-dimensional.''

When we at ILB visited the Palace last summer we were astonished by the play of light upon the beetle shells. To say it in the words of Jan Hoet: Fabre truly created a membrane of light. And if you still wouldn't believe us, then go see with your own eyes: the palace is open from mid July till the first week of September (a practical tip: be at the gates around 10 to avoid those annoying herds of tourists)

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