Monday, July 25, 2005

Full Circle

We have just returned from a week's holiday in the Department of Dordogne region, previously called Perigord. It is the third time we have made this trip since we came to France, and for good reason. It is, firstly, a very picturesque and largely unspoilt region of rolling hills, wide rivers and steep valley gorges cut into limestone. The hills are an attractive patchwork of dense woodland and small fields. To the British, it is an idyllic place, the golden-coloured limestone recalling Cotswold villages of Oxfordshire now unattainable after the house price rises in the UK during the last ten years. This helps to explain why the British have been purchasing houses in this region like crazy, to the extent that some people now refer to it as Dordogneshire.

The second reason for interest in the Dordogne, is its history. The place is studded with beautiful Chateaux, often perched on top of formidable defensive positions. Many of the Chateaux have interesting Medieval histories dating back to the period when England's Edward I was making inroads into the French territory of Perigord from his base in Aquitaine. Edward's legacy to the region includes the many bastide towns built on a formal design of defensive walls containing roads intersecting at 90 degrees around a central market square.

Another reason for Dordogne's popularity is the renowned culinary delights including truffles, cepes, foie gras and other poultry products. The towns of Perigreux and Sarlat are the culinary capitals, becoming rich from the trade in these desirable treats. Foie gras goose liver pate still sells at around £20 for a pound jar, even though the market seems somewhat flooded with the stuff.

The final major reason, and for me the most attractive, is the fabulous caves that can be visited, some of which are geological wonders, others of which contain the rare artistic vestiges of Palaeolithic man in the form of cave paintings. The most famous attraction is the Lascaux cave. The first time I remember seeing pictures of this cave was in a free weekly supplement of the Sunday Times called "One Million Years of Art", published in the 1970s. I remember cherishing this supplement that appeared week by week and built up into a thick pile of the most striking images I had ever encountered. The design was very simple: rows of pictures with a minimum of explanation underneath, something like an auctioneers catalogue. The reason for the simplicity, scope, boldness of choice and unconventionality of this publication was that it was, as I later found out, put together by Bruce Chatwin. The details are in the excellent biography of Chatwin by Nicholas Shakespeare.

I hardly need to describe Lascaux, as its paintings of horses and bisons running a stampede along the walls of the cave are well known. What can be added, however, is that the animal forms are inspired by the rock onto which they are painted. The paintings are not 2-dimensional, but 3-dimensional. The paintings are bringing to dynamic life the static rock forms that are already there. They are encouraging the rock to live. The cave painters, using ochre paints made from iron ore would have used lamps that burned animal fat and whose unsteady flames would have thrown dancing shadows that accentuated the form of the rock.

In his book "Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age", Richard Rudgley describes caves such as Lascaux as "natural cathedrals, distant ancestors of the passage-graves and burial mounds of the Neolithic period". He admits that the mythology surrounding such places is hazy which is why he uses the analogy of modern Autralian aboriginal myths to explain, for example, the origin of the reddend iron ore that makes ochre, thought by aborigines to be the dried blood of a mythic giant kangaroo. The same iron stains seep down into the rocks of the Dordogne, as if blood had been spilt across the surface of the land. Rudgley also points out that the paintings of Lascaux were probably not rare during the Palaeolithic, it is just that they were well preserved in this region where caves are abundant and many have remained forgotten by man ever since they were originally painted.

The other kind of cave we have visited in this region and in areas close by such as the Cevennes, are those where the excavation of enormous caverns and the formation of extraordinary curtains of stalactites and rock formations have created natural wonders. It is likely that Paleolithic man was familiar with some of these features, but unlikely that they ever saw the three great 'natural cathedrals' of the south-east: the Gouffre de Padirac, the Gouffre de Proumeyssac and the Aven Armand. These three caves all have very high, cavernous ceilings and are lined with thousands of stalactites which the guide will explain to you look like 'organ pipes' or stalagtites which the guide will say are known as 'the madonna and child' or 'the crucifixion'. When I type cathedral+cave into the Google search engine, I get 696,000 hits. Isn't it time somebody started asking why cathedrals look like caves, rather than always saying that caves look like cathedrals?

These caves, like Lascaux, were only discovered as recently as the twentieth century by the boom in speleological investigation that occurred in the first part of the century. By that time, Darwin had won his arguments on the evolution of man and modern life was starting to batter at the doors of the established church. People had started to wonder what was really down there, under the ground.

The gouffres were difficult to get into because they were accessed by a hole on the surface of the limestone plateau. People had known about these holes for as many centuries as they had been disposing of rubbish down them. All they knew was that they went down a long way. Vapours sometimes arose from the holes, leading to local myths that the devil was living down there, myths no doubt encouraged by the church. Satan, for example, is said to have emerged from the Gouffre de Padirac and bartered for souls with St. Martin. Eventually, in each case, some intrepid character got a rope and went down with a candle only to discover, not the devil, but a natural wonderland. And when the rubbish piles were analysed, hordes of coins and human skeletons were discovered among the rest of the ossuary trash, stuff that human guilt and misdemeanour had dumped there.

As I have already mentioned, the painted caves of the Dordogne region are probably some of the earliest spiritual sanctuaries that have been documented, around 30,000 B.C. They preceded the Neolithic tumulus burial mounds and, later, the burial of the Egyptian Pharoahs in underground caverns such as those found in the Valley of the Kings. The Acropolis itself, according to David Craig, in his book 'Landmarks' is founded on a rock containing caves used by cults of earth worship. Thus, a relationship with the earth (through exploration and use of caves) and fulfillment of the spiritual instinct are already well established by the time Chritianity comes along.

The early Christian church was outlawed by the Romans until 313 B.C. The act of conversion was therefore a secretive one. In the 1st century AD, a cave-dwelling life was not unusual in the Mediterranean region where the cimate was hot and caves provided a cool retreat from the sun. They were also secretive places where radical religious leaders could hide away.

On Malta, for example, according to legend, the first place to have been used as a chapel was the cavern where St Paul was kept as a prisoner following his shipwreck on the island in A.D. 60. Today it is known as St Paul’s Grotto in the town of Rabat. Whatever the tradition, the area was used for Christian burials and rituals by the 3rd century A.D. The importance of this grotto to the catholic church can be evidenced by the visit there of Pope John-Paul in 1990.

The book "The Cave of John the Baptist" by Shimon Gibson describes the archaeological evidence that a cave found near Jerusalem contains a large ritual bathing pool which he claims was used by Christians for baptism during the first century AD. He relates these activities to events described in the Gospels. The cave is found in the village where John the Baptist is said to have been born, and shows what he calls unmistakable signs of ritual use in the first century AD. Also in the cave is said to be the earliest ever Christian art, depicting John the Baptist as well as the three crosses of the crucifixion.

Early Christian builders adapted structures that had long been used in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds, that of a basilican hall, consisting of a nave flanked by lower aisles and terminated by an apse. This developed into a more centralised structure, often cruciform in shape. In so doing, a single plain room was turned into a central area with annexes running off it. These annexes in turn often have small chapels running off them. To me, that is about as cave like as formal architecture can get, all bar the labyrinthine palace of King Minos on Crete. It is strong contrast, for example, to the well lit and open structures of many Muslim mosques.

In the cathedral of St. Front in Perigueux last week I walked into a small chapel dedicated to St. Jacques (symbol: a Pecten shell) situated off the main aisle. Passing through a passage in a 2m thick wall, it was exactly like stepping into a small cave. To me, the sombre and intricate structure of many medieval cathedrals reflects a conscious or unconscious desire on the part of their builders to recreate the same natural cavernous structures used for worship since time immemorial. For me, it is organ pipes that look like stalactites, not the other way around. This use of natural form in architecture is equally applicable in terms of the plant and animal forms that often cover cathedrals. It is simply a part of the artistic process which took up and adapted what was there before, in the same way that the church calender was adapted from pre-existing pagan events.

In the Dordogne, the three "natural cathedrals" that I mentioned earlier are now major tourist attractions receiving several hundred thousand visitors a year between them. I'm not sure how this compares to the cathedral of Lourdes, but nonetheless, it is pretty impressive. I am pleased that these natural geological structures, so recently discovered, are now proving a good match for the structures built by man. These caves, which took tens of millions of years to form rather than the few hundred years in which cathedrals are built, are eloquent witnesess to the mystery of deep geological time. For me they relocate that sense of wonderment back to where it should be, which is towards the earth on which we all depend. In a sense we have come full circle, returning to the point where the cave painters of Lascaux began.

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