Of Caves and Cathedrals

Here’s the thing: I was in a cave last week.  A very impressive cave; possibly the biggest and best I’ve ever been in.  Specifically, I was in the Cueva de Nerja.

Inevitably, when in such a place, banal cliche springs to mind: ‘It’s just like a cathedral’.  The thing about cliche, though, is it’s rarely banal.  (I’ve long thought certain kinds of cliche have an undeservedly negative reputation; lots of them are cliches in the first place precisely because they carry revealing or interesting or significant truths within them, so now and again it’s good to consider, rather than dismiss, them).

Saying a cave is like a cathedral – and this one indubitably is – is saying two, possibly interconnected, things.  It’s physically similar: the still, cool air; the hard surfaces that reflect sound; the absence, most of the time, of any sound for them to reflect; the scale, which dwarfs us little individuals.  But it’s also spiritually similar.  Caves and cathedrals induce similar emotional, mental responses in people, and to me it’s inescapable that a big cave feels like a sacred, numinous space.

I started wondering, as I strolled around this subterranean wonderland, about how things join up.  Did it feel, to me, like a sacred space specifically because it reminded me of a cathedral, and shared those physical characteristics that my long experience of cathedrals has taught me to associate with the divine?  Or is there something intrinsic to the experience of being in a big cave that independently puts people in mind of the supernatural, the intangible, the sacred?  I suspect it’s the latter, especially given the powerful effect caves clearly had on our prehistoric ancestors.

And if it is the latter, I wonder if the cliche’s not the wrong way round.  It’s not caves that feel like cathedrals at all; it’s cathedrals that feel like caves.  Perhaps the builders of those Christian monuments were unconconsciously – coincidentally? – drawing on the model of the underground caverns in using architecture to evoke those very same feelings that the caverns conjured up in our cavemen forefathers.  Perhaps there’s something deep inside all of us that associates large, dark, silent, still places with the spiritual world.  A race memory deep in our animal brains.

What’s most striking about the Nerja Caves is the proliferation of organic forms in the rock.  It’s as if a host of Lovecraftian creatures had been petrified in the act of ascending from the bowels of the Earth.  Unfortunately, flash photography not allowed so I can’t really offer any photos that convey the full eyekick of the experience, but I’ve done the best with what I’ve got.  Behold crashed space rockets festooned with jellyfish, giant’s bedclothes folded and hung up to dry, and melting coral.  All of it made by nothing more than rock, water and time.  Nature, she is an artist beyond compare (and with a wild imagination, to boot).

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  1. Alan’s avatar

    “Heres the thing”……is this a homage to Mark Kermode ?

  2. Brian’s avatar

    Ha. No, but clearly it would have been funnier and cleverer if it had been. So wait: I should just say Yes, it was a homage to Mark Kermode, right?

    And for anyone who doesn’t know what we’re talking about, go listen to the best film podcast on teh interweb.

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