Caves are places of deep spiritual significance, containing connotations of safety and shelter on one hand and darkness and terror on the other. Much like the human psyche itself, a cavern is a mysterious and disorienting place which both invites and evades exploration. It is no surprise that, over the centuries, humans have built temples and shrines inside of caves, filling the walls with paintings, the chambers with statues, and hewing into the rock itself. Here are a few such places.
Madonna del Parto
Sutri is a small town near Rome with an ancient past. There are dozens of Etruscan tombs carved into the hillsides, forming a cemetery which predates Roman civilization. Nestled amongst these tombs is the Church of the Madonna del Parto, or Mother of the Birth. This beautiful and eerie little cave was, in Roman times, used as a Mithraeum, a chamber sacred to the deity Mithras, who was said to be born in a cave. It was long ago converted into a Christian church, expunging obvious traces of its former use and covering its walls with romanesque touches and frescos.
I can’t help but smile at seeing Jesus cocooned in swaddling, like a caterpillar getting ready to become a butterfly.
The Magao caves, also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, are an enormous complex near Dunhuang, China, formerly a strategic outpost and cultural center on the Silk Road. Numbering almost 500, the caves are filled with Buddhist shrines and also contained a library which has been divided among museums all over the world. Under construction from 366 to 1368 AD, they contain culture from many dynasties, exhibiting different styles and changes in thought. You can read about and explore the caves in depth at the Dunhuang Academy Website.
Magao Cave 428 is exceptionally large and contains many murals of differing styles dating from the Northern Zhou dynasty, 557-581 AD. The size and richness of this particular cave are due to edicts that Emperor Wu issued persecuting Buddhists. Monks from many parts of China fled to the remoteness of Dunhuang to escape death and persecution and to build sanctuaries to preserve their faith. You can read more about Cave 428 here.
The difference in style between the mural from Cave 428 and the tenth century mural above is extreme. The later work is much more flowery and has a completely different grasp of shading and perspective, while the first has similarities to Christian iconography from Eurasia, especially to paintings of haloed saints. Thoughts and styles traveled fluidly along the Silk Road.
The Caves of Ellora
Ellora is another ancient place, a village in the state of Maharashtra, on the western side of India. This cave complex is impressive for its architecture and sculpture, as well as its ecumenical nature. Of the 34 cave shrines, 12 are Buddhist (5th to 7th century), 17 are Hindu (6th to 8th century) , and 5 are Jain (10th century), attesting to the level of religious tolerance which existed for centuries in the region.
The Hindu Temple of Kailashnatha, dedicated to Shiva, is widely considered to be the most impressive of the shrines. It required 100 years to hew it from the rock complete with artistic flourishes and ornaments, while 200,000 tons of rock were removed in the process. It is difficult to get a concept of the size of the temple, since it begins in the dark far below. The Kailashnatha stands in an area more than twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens and its three stories were carved from the top down, gradually descending into the depths. Yipes!
The figures at Kailashnatha are in greater detail than the other shrines and lean towards the three dimensional as opposed to being portrayed consistently in relief.
In contrast, the Buddhist Shrine of Cave 10, know as Vishwakarma or Sutar ka jhopda, Carpenter’s hut, is elegant in its simplicity. A 15 foot Buddha is seated in preaching pose, cheerfully waiting in the dark for the faithful to arrive and meditate, while a vaulted ceiling, which might remind you of an European cathedral, soars overhead. Again, ideas travelled far more widely among people and religions in the past than we are accustomed to believe. Behind him is a stupa which may contain relics or the ashes of monks. This fellow seems rather inviting, as opposed to the aggressive impressiveness of many such sites or the haunted loneliness of others.
There are many more places just as fantastic as these, from the David Gareja Monastery near Tblisi, Georgia and the Göreme National Park Rock Churches in Turkey to the Longmen and Yungang Grottoes in China, the Batu Caves in Malaysia and many, many more. Why not go exploring?