Friday, September 19, 2008

In a holy place


In the winter of 1968-69, my family -- me, wife, three young kids (Tom not yet with us) -- toured Spain in a Volkswagen camper. Luck and happenstance led us to the famous cave at Altamira near the northern coast. It was a cold, dreary day. The place was all but deserted. At last we found a kindly gentleman who admitted us to the cave and led us deep into its recesses. There we lay on our backs and looked up onto the most astonishing murals we had ever seen -- bison, horses, a deer and a boar, rendered with amazing animation and verisimilitude, cavorting on the ceiling of a prehistoric Sistine Chapel.

After visiting the cave, Picasso is said to have exclaimed, "After Altamira, all is decadence." I don't know about that, but Altamira was surely a peak experience in my life. And just in time. During the 70s the cave was closed to the public. Apparently, limited access is now allowed (Wikipedia notes a three-year waiting list). The following summer, we visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome. No doubt, Michelangelo's murals are spectacular, but for depth of feeling I will take the Altamira animals any day.

It is hard to know what religious impulses inspired Michelangelo. I would guess his art was an end in itself, not so much for the glory of God as for the glory of the artist. And fair enough. But for the artists of Altamira I suspect their art was a matter of life and death. Their gods had not yet been banished to an abstract heaven, Nature itself was sublimely divine. Our own environmental problems could perhaps be made less fraught if we could bring the sacred back down to earth and imagine ourselves once again as dependent parts of the natural order.