Paintings of Caves 1: Sacred to Mythical

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Greek Women Plead for the Virgin's Help (1826), oil on canvas, 65 x 55 cm, National Museum of Western Art 国立西洋美術館 (Kokuritsu seiyō bijutsukan), Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s now part of our folk history that humans were once cavemen and cavewomen, but that’s only since Darwin and others in the mid-nineteenth century introduced the idea that people today have evolved from a more primitive past. We also know now that the earliest surviving paintings are those made in caves around thirty-five to forty thousand years ago.

In this article and its sequel tomorrow I’m going to look not at paintings in caves, but Western paintings of caves, to see how their associations and reading have changed. I think it provides a fascinating insight into changing ideas.

Early modern paintings of caves associate them not with the primitive, but the sacred.

Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Hermit Saints Anthony, Jerome and Giles (right panel of triptych) (c 1495-1505, oil on oak panel, 85.4 × 29.2 cm (left), 85.7 × 60 cm (central), 85.7 × 28.9 cm (right), Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. Photo Rik Klein Gotink and image processing Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.

The right panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych showing The Hermit Saints Anthony, Jerome and Giles from around 1500 places Saint Giles standing to pray inside a small cave. He’s surrounded by a collection of strange objects, such as the bleached skull of a bird, and a tiny wizened tree.

Giorgione (1477–1510), The Adoration of the Shepherds (‘Allendale Nativity’) (1505-10), oil on panel, 90.8 × 110.5 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

For Giorgione, in his The Adoration of the Shepherds or the Allendale Nativity from 1505-10, a cave was sacred enough to house the Holy Family itself for the birth of Christ, rather than the more literal and conventional stable.

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Paul the Hermit (c 1635-38) [81], oil on canvas, 261 x 192.5 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.
Caves were most strongly associated with hermits, who were so devout as to give up all worldly possessions, including the shelter of buildings and live in what nature provided. In about 1635-38, Velázquez painted Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Paul the Hermit as the altarpiece for one of the small chapels in the grounds of the Buen Retiro in Madrid. Saint Paul’s hermit life has him dwelling in the cave shown just to the right of his head.

Caves also featured in several classical myths, where they were associated with some of the most ‘sacred’ figures.

François Perrier (1594–1649), Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl (c 1646), oil on canvas, 152 × 196 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

When the hero Aeneas consults the Cumaean Sibyl, François Perrier shows her emerging from her cave at the right, in his painting Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl from about 1646.

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus (date not known), oil on canvas, 76 × 96 cm, Pushkin Museum Музей изобразительных искусств им. А.С. Пушкина, Moscow, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

The one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus was another mythical cave-dweller, this time in Homer’s epic Odyssey. Jacob Jordaens pictures Odysseus’ crew fastening themselves to the underside of sheep as they prepare to escape from the blinded giant, in his Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus, which was probably painted in about 1650.

In more modern literature, caves started to take on other associations, possibly derived from the habit of some mythical monsters such as dragons living in caves.

Benjamin West (1738–1820), The Cave of Despair (1772), oil on canvas, 61 x 76.2 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

In Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene, far from being a sacred place, it is now The Cave of Despair, as shown by Benjamin West in his painting of 1772. (This refers to Book 1, Canto 9.) The Knight of Holiness, bearing a red cross, vows to battle the creature Despair. When he finds the creature’s cave, it is littered with corpses, and Despair has only just finished killing the latest. Despair then tries to convince the knight that he should kill himself – an action which Una prevents him from doing.

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), A Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno, Sunset (1780-81), oil on canvas, 101.6 x 127 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

With the Age of Enlightenment came more adventurous travel, and the tendency for artists to depict unusual locations which they have visited. In 1774, Joseph Wright of Derby visited Italy, where he entered a sea cave at the northern end of the Bay of Naples, and made a series of paintings of the view from inside the cave. This version of A Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno, Sunset was painted in 1780-81, long after his return to Britain.

One rather less than sacred place which was traditionally underground is the Underworld.

Martin Johann Schmidt (1718–1801), The Labour of the Danaides (1785), oil on copper plate, 54.5 × 77 cm, Narodna galerija Slovenije, Ljubljana, Slovenia. Wikimedia Commons.

Martin Johann Schmidt’s Labour of the Danaides from 1785 shows the Danaïds paying their penance in the Underworld by trying to fill this leaky barrel with water – known as a Sisyphean task after Sisyphus who was similarly condemned to roll a huge boulder uphill only for it to roll back down.

Charles Brocas (1774–1835), Aristides (1806), oil on canvas, 235 x 183 cm, Musée des Augustins de Toulouse, Toulouse, France. Image by Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons.

Living in caves was increasingly being associated with poverty and destitution for reasons other than being a hermit. When the great Greek statesman Aristides was banished, he sheltered in a cave with his two daughters, as shown here by Charles Brocas in his painting which was exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1806. His left arm clutches their few possessions: a thin cloak, and small statues of the goddess Athena, and of Zeus himself. Thankfully, this banishment was rescinded after only three years, and Aristides returned to prove a successful general.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808, 1827), oil on canvas, 189 x 144 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo courtesy of the Art Renewal Center, via Wikimedia Commons.

It wasn’t only dragons that lived in caves. According to JAD Ingres’ brilliant painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx, shown in its original form in 1808 but extensively reworked in 1825-27, it was at the entrance to the sphinx’s cave that the famous encounter with Oedipus took place. He used the deep shadow of the cave interior to great effect too.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783–1853), Ulysses Fleeing the Cave of Polyphemus (1812), oil on canvas, 80 x 63.5 cm, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ. Wikimedia Commons.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg revisited the story of Ulysses Fleeing the Cave of Polyphemus in 1812, showing Ulysses about to make his way out of the Cyclops’ cave, as his captor strokes one of his sheep. In contrast to Ingres, he lights the interior of the cave well enough to make his narrative clear.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Greek Women Plead for the Virgin’s Help (1826), oil on canvas, 65 x 55 cm, National Museum of Western Art 国立西洋美術館 (Kokuritsu seiyō bijutsukan), Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

During the Greek War of Independence, Ary Scheffer called on multiple associations of caves in his moving painting of Greek Women Plead for the Virgin’s Help (1826). This cave is both a sacred place, with its icon of the Virgin Mary, and sanctuary for these women in their distress. Outside the mouth of the cave are Ottoman troops, ready to rape and murder the young Greek women kneeling in front of the icon.

The nineteenth century brought further change in the associations of caves, even before the arrival of Darwin and concepts of evolution. I’ll look at those in the next and concluding article tomorrow.