“You can’t die without seeing this”
The headline in the El Pais article today quotes one of the five visitors allowed into the Unesco World Heritage Site at Altamira in northern Spain, to contemplate the prehistoric ceiling paintings, created during a period experts have placed at anywhere up to 35,000 years ago. Here are the lucky five outside the cave, wearing clothing and masks designed to protect the cave paintings from visitors’ humidity:
Every day from now until August the same lottery will take place at the museum, allowing a handful of visitors the chance to witness the real thing.
“As a Cantabrian you cannot die without seeing this,” said Álvaro San Miguel, editor of the regional daily Montañés. “Today I felt the weight of history.”
Fortunately I will not die without seeing the Altamira cave paintings, for I saw them long before the cave was closed to the public. In 1970 I arrived in Santillana del Mar on my bicycle, a few days ride from Santander where the ferry from England had docked at the start of my very first long-distance cycle tour: a complete circuit of central Spain in the middle of August.
I paid my fifty pesetas and went in merely out of curiosity, being completely ignorant of the significance of primitive art, at the age of eighteen. In truth, I was more interested in seeing a big cave. What the painting stuff was all about, I really didn’t know…
Once inside, I suddenly met the human beings of thirty thousand years ago, and I was completely mesmerised and shaken out of my entire shallow existence up to that point. Racing cars, jet aircraft, and the popular culture of the RAF barrack room was my life at that time. I had 30 days leave from RAF Halton, where I was finishing my apprenticeship as an airframe technician.
When I stood transfixed, looking up at the charcoal and red and yellow ochre paintings, I did not know what had hit me. All I knew was this: it was a much bigger thing than me. I was completely overwhelmed by a feeling I had never experienced: a sense of the religious dimension. The people who painted these art works were praising creation, celebrating it, adding a sense of mystical value to bulls and deer, in such a way that I was moved to tears.
As I returned to the road and cycled south towards the Spanish Meseta Central , and experienced the extreme August heat, my mind stayed within the cool of that prehistoric cave by the village of Santillana. On my list of “must see” places in Spain on that cycle tour was Burgos cathedral. Why? Because I had seen the great Hollywood blockbuster El Cid and I wanted to see the cofre del Cid in the cathedral – no other reason for going into a church! So I paid my one hundred pesetas and went in.
In those days, Burgos cathedral had not yet been cleaned of its soot. Outside, it was a dark imposing pile of black and charcoal grey flying buttresses, tracery and great weathered doors. There was a huge seminary nearby and traditionally dressed priests and seminarians were seen everywhere. It was a world that was outside my experience.
But inside the cathedral I suddenly felt at home in the new world of the numinous I had discovered in Altamira, just a few days earlier. The sculpture, the stained glass, the majesty of the high Gothic vaulting above the nave: all this spoke of the same mystery, and yet an advanced mystery that I still did not comprehend, and I knew it would be a lifetime’s project.
Here was the higher reality for which we were born, and I knew it right then. The only way I could think to understand that was by exploring art, and so I did. Faith took another fifteen years – and other stages on the journey – to break through.
So, back to Altamira, where it all started, and what are the dangers of re-admitting the public? This 2011 Science & Technology article makes the issues clear.
The damage human beings can do to the cave paintings are the main problem here, but I’d like to suggest another danger in admitting the public. You may find that the odd visitor – and perhaps I was a very odd visitor – eventually becomes a Catholic. When I began regular prayer eventually, on my Christian journey, I had a picture of that deer on the cover of my book of psalms. “Like a deer for running brooks, I thirst for you Lord.”