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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking

Caves in Art (& Beyond)

Matmata by Flickr user DSChubba

Matmata by Flickr user DSChubba

Cave homes in Turkey and Meso-America. Underground homes in Tunisian Sahara and Luke Skywalker’s Tatooine. Nuclear bunkers and Nazi lairs. Subways and the Great Petra Temple. Wine cellars. Mayan subterranean canals. Safety and stability.

The cave is represented in art by an almost infinite number of means. Aside from being the context where the art is viewed caves have been variously underground lairs, sea caves, natural and man-made. They have offered protection and conversely, have borne demons. They have been grottoes and places of retreat, a place to lick wounds or to receive them.

Globally caves have been seen, since prehistory, as wombs of the earth. Consequently they have been used as ritual sites for rebirth and the renewal of the seasons. One theory about Niaux, in southern France, is that the paintings in there were seen as magical and that by depicting seasonally migratory herds the people were in some ways calling them back for spring.


There exists a creation myth in Turkey, where it is proposed that man was created on the borders of China where a flood washed malleable clay into a cave where it was moulded to the shape of the containing cavern; the shape of man, Ay-Atam (sound like Adam?). Act two of this myth appears to lack creative spark; woman was simply created the same way at a later date. Intriguingly, after death Ay-Atam was returned to the earth.

The main gallery at Lascaux

The main gallery at Lascaux

The act of drawing on caves walls, as proposed by David Lewis Williams in The Mind in the Cave, may have begun as simple tracings of shadows while our ancestors sought shelter.

This shadowed view of caves must have been on Plato’s mind. In his Republic, Plato surmises that all life is metaphorically captive. Plato envisages all people as being in a cave, bound together at the back of the cave facing the rear away from the entrance. All we see are shadows of the true reality that exists beyond our comprehension.

Contemporaneously to Plato, Zoroaster dedicated a grotto with flowing water and verdant edges to Mithras as a self-contained symbol of our world. One who has had any form of Catholicism in their upbringing can’t fail to hear echoes of Lourdes in this.

Caves have been alternately seen as dungeons and places of horror. The Greek anti-hero Trophonius was condemned to underground exile where he could be consulted as an oracle by enduring a tortuous one-way journey to his depth. His crime? Fratricide.

The Cave of the Storm Nymphs by Sir Edward John Poynter

The Cave of the Storm Nymphs by Sir Edward John Poynter

The theme of caves as lairs and safe-havens for criminals is brought to the fore in Faulkner’s Moonfleet. The hero, John Trenchard, is saved by being welcomed into the world of the dead temporarily. After uncovering the crypt that smugglers have been using to store their loot, he is forced to share a coffin to escape their attention.

St Jerome by Jacopi Bassano. St Jerome retreated to a hermitic existence in a cave to compile the Bible.

St Jerome by Jacopi Bassano. St Jerome retreated to a hermitic existence in a cave to compile the Bible.

This subterranean burial is also seen as continual rebirth. In Chinese mythology the Immortals live in caves where they return to regenerate. St Jerome retreated to a cave so that the Bible would be reborn.

Staffa, Fingal's Cave by JMW Turner

Staffa, Fingal's Cave by JMW Turner

Other Notable Incidences

Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth
The proto-sci-fi tale takes the reader deep into core of our planet via a volcanic crater – a birth of fire. Using the Hollow Earth Theory which was even then discredited we travel on a fantastic voyage into the very foundations of the world that supports us. Verne then shows us that although we may feel, or have felt at any time through history, that we know all that is to be known about our planet that life abounds and will surprise us at every turn.

Sidhe, souterrains and cairns – Tuatha de Danann, neolithic people and the fairy folk.
On a more concrete level the landscapes globally are dotted with artificial caves. In Ireland passage graves, court cairns, sweat houses and other architectural relics survive as ‘ritual landscapes’. The Horse Temple at Uisneach features underground passages in the shape of a galloping horse. The widest chamber is at the centre and is known as the “womb”. This is a place of generation unlike the great passage tombs of Ireland where bodies in various states were finally interred.

Andy Goldsworthy

Andy Goldsworthy

Modern Art
“the black of a hole is like the flame of a fire. The flame makes the energy of fire visible. The black is like the earth’s flame – its energy. I used to say I will make no more holes. Now I know I will always make them. I am drawn to them with the same urge I have to look over a cliff edge. It is possible that the last work I make will be a hole.”
Andy Goldsworthy on constructing caves; this recalls the volcanic entrance to the Underworld of Greek mythology and Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Large Richard Serra pieces certainly reference caves strongly, arching over viewers, enveloping and shielding them. Gordon Matta Clark made his name creating caverns from buildings, revealing their interiors through rough-cut portals.

La Grotte by Xavier Veilhan who showed at Pommery

La Grotte by Xavier Veilhan who showed at Pommery

More recently caves have been returning to their neolithic purpose as exhibition spaces. Their obvious strength is that light is controlled and even, it can be manipulated without external interference. Two major examples of this are the Art Cave and the Experience Pommery.

The main entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

The main entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Deep down we all recognise, in a residual prehistoric perception, that caves offer secure shelter; so it was only natural that scientists chose an underground cavern to house a global repository of vegetable life – The Svalbard Global Seed Vault. However, fresher in most minds, must be the cave complexes of Tora Bora, which offered shelter and bore demons.

The ever interesting BLDGBLOG on Vardzia cave complex
Early Cave Art
Fingal’s Cave has been the scene and subject of many different works
Underground Habitations
Gordon Matta-Clark, Ed. Corinne Diserens, Phaidon, 2003
Art Since 1960, Michael Archer, Thames and Hudson, 1997
The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis Williams, Thames and Hudson, 2004
Hand to Earth, Andy Goldsworthy, Thames and Hudson, 2006
Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbant, Penguin, 1969
Moonfleet, J. Meade Falkner, Puffin Classics, 1994
Mythic Ireland, Michael Dames, Thames & Hudson, 1996
Reading the Irish Landscape, Frank Mitchell and Michael Ryan, Town House Press, 2007

This article was posted by on Monday, February 22nd, 2010 at 03:24.
It is archived in Art, Culture, Environment, History, Myth, Science, Wild Places and tagged , , , , , , , .

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