Hertzian indentation testing is proposed as a protocol for evaluating the role of microstructure in the mechanical response of dental ceramics. A major advantage of Hertzian indentation over more traditional fracture-testing methodologies is that it emulates the loading conditions experienced by dental restorations: Clinical variables (masticatory force and cuspal curvature) identify closely with Hertzian variables (contact load and sphere radius). In this paper, Hertzian responses on four generic dental ceramics systems-micaceous glass-ceramics, glass-infiltrated alumina, feldspathic porcelain, and transformable zirconiaare presented as case studies. Ceramographic sectioning by means of a "bonded-interface" technique provides new information on the contact damage modes. Two distinct modes are observed: "brittle" mode, classic macroscopic fracture outside the contact (ring, or cone cracks), driven by tensile stresses; and "quasi-plastic" mode, a relatively new kind of deformation below the contact (diffuse microdamage), driven by shear stresses. A progressive transition from the first to the second mode with increasing microstructural heterogeneity is observed. The degree of quasi-plasticity is readily apparent as deviations from ideal linear elastic responses on indentation stress-strain curves. Plots of threshold loads for the initiation of both fracture and deformation modes as a function of indenter radius constitute "damage maps" for the evaluation of prospective restoration damage under typical masticatory conditions. The degree of damage in both modes evolves progressively with load above the thresholds. Strength tests on indented specimens quantify sustainable stress levels on restoration materials after damage. The most brittle responses are observed in the fine glass-ceramics and porcelain; conversely, the most quasi-plastic responses are observed in the coarse glass-ceramics and zirconia; the medium glass-ceramics and alumina exhibit intermediate responses. Implications of the results in relation to future materials characterization, selection, and design are considered in the clinical context.