Thursday, August 12, 2010

Caves and Churches

On our drive to Spain we passed through the "Valley of Humans" in southwestern France. Here are the famous paleolithic caves paintings of Lascaux. We didn't have a chance to visit any caves here, but there were paleolithic caves in northern Spain. We went to one hidden in a cliff right next to the beach in Ribadisella. The original opening to the cave was closed by a landslide god knows when, so the cave wasn't discovered until the early sixties by amatuer cave climbers.

There are many paleolithic cave paintings strewn threw the labyrinth of caves. We could only see one set of paintings. There were three main paintings one almost 40,000 years old and the newest maybe 20,000 years old. The paintings were charcoal drawings of reindeer and horses, very beautifully done and they all used the natural rock itself as part of the drawing (i.e. a crack in the rock could be used as an outline of a horse limb). There were small more schematic animal drawings, a proportionally correct detailed drawing of a horse head, and a "impressionistic" purple colored drawing of a horse. The guide said that Picasso when seeing the cave paintings said something like: "it's all been done before, the symbolic, the realistic, the impressionistic, and the abstract." We humans haven't really changed that much, it's only our technology that has really advanced.

You have to walk in these caves to understand this, but I'll try here. These are large caves with water sculpted walls (the caves were originally carved out by an underground river), the ceilings can be 20 meters high or more. The stalactites hanging from the ceiling are grotesque and come in many shapes and forms. Their design is elaborate. These caves and the drawings were, I think, like churches to paleolithic humans. Walk into any gothic church and you can feel the cave-like atmosphere, the almost grotesque ornamentation, the darkness punctuated by light streaming down from above, the carved and painted figures all around. Really the church is but an elaboration of the cave!

Now consider this: the stone in the caves is a kind of sandstone usually, which is soft enough that water can carve out the cave in the first place. The churches are often of the very same stone! And then in the mountains of Spain we saw an alter of sorts set in an actual cave! It is shown in the topmost picture above. The religious alter was built into the cave wall. The stream below the natural waterfall was damed off to make a reflective little lake. And haven't I seen these little fake "grottos" with, I think, a figure of Mary, in the vestibules of various catholic churches. I don't know, the parallels between cave and church are astonishingly many. And aren't these fake "caves" built into numerous public fountains around Europe. Think of King Ludwig's fantasy grotto he built for Wagner, with the swan shaped boats. Caves have been particularly special to humans for some time, and still are.

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