Geology of the Grand Canyon: The Temples And Towers Of The Virgen.

Updated May 14, 2020 | Infoplease Staff


At our feet the surface drops down by cliff and talus 1,200 feet upon a broad and rugged plain cut by narrow cañons. The slopes , the winding ledges, the bosses of projecting rock, the naked, scanty soil, display colors which are truly amazing. Chocolate, maroon, purple, lavender, magenta, with broad bands of toned white, are laid in horizontal belts, strongly contrasting with each other, and the ever-varying slope of the surface cuts across them capriciously, so that the sharply defined belts wind about like the contours of a map. From right to left across the further foreground of the picture stretches the inner cañon of the Virgen about 700 feet in depth, and here of considerable width. Its bottom in for the most part unseen, but in one place is disclosed by a turn in its course, showing the vivid green of vegetation. Across the cañon, and rather more than a mile a half beyond it, stands the central and commanding object of the picture, the western temple, rising 4,000 feet above the river. Its glorious summit was the object we had seen an hour before, and now the matchless beauty and majesty of its vast mass was all before us. Yet it was only the central object of a mighty throng of structures wrought up to the same exalted style, and filling up the entire panorama. Right opposite are the two principal forks of the Virgen, the Parúnuweap coming from the right or east, and the Mukúntuweap or Little Zion Valley, descending towards us from the north. The Parúnuweap is seen emerging on the extreme right through a stupendous gateway and chasm in the Triassic terrace, nearly 3,000 feet in depth. The further wall of this cañon, at the opening of the gateway, quickly swings northward at a right angle and becomes the eastern wall of Little Zion Valley. As it sweeps down the Parúnuweap it breaks into great pediments, covered all over with the richest carving. The effect is much like that which the architect of the Milan Cathedral appears to have designed, though here it is vividly suggested rather than fully realized-as an artist painting in the “broad style“ suggests many things without actually drawing them. The sumptuous, bewildering, mazy effect is all there, but when we attempt to analyze it in detail it eludes us. The flank of the wall receding up the Mukúntuweap is for a mile or two similarly decorated, but soon break into new forms much more impressive and wonderful. A row of towers half a mile high is quarried out of the palisade, and stands well advanced from its face. There is an eloquence in their forms which stirs the imagination with a singular power, and kindles in the mind of the dullest observer a glowing response. Just behind them, and rising thousand feet higher, is the eastern temple, crowned with a cylindric dome of white sandstone; but since it is, in many respects, a repetition of the nearer western temple, we may turn our attention to the latter. Directly in front of us a complex group of white towers, springing from a central pile, mounts upwards to the clouds. Out of their midst, and high over all, rises a dome-like mass, which dominates the entire landscape. It is almost pure white, with brilliant streaks of carmine descending its vertical walls. At the summit it is truncated, and a flat tablet is laid upon the top, showing its edge of deep red. It is impossible to liken this object to any familiar shape, for it resembles none. Yet its shape is far from being indefinite; on the contrary, it has a definiteness and individuality which extort an exclamation of surprise when first beheld. There is no name provided for such an object, or is it worth while to invent one. Call it a dome; not because it has the ordinary shape of such a structure, but because it performs the function of a dome.

The towers which surround it are of inferior mass and altitude, but each of them is a study of fine form and architectural effect. They are white above, and change to a strong rich red below. Dome and towers are planted upon a substructure no less admirable. Its plan is indefinite, but its profiles are perfectly systematic. A curtain wall 1,400 feet high descends vertically from the eaves of the temple and is succeeded by a steep slope of ever-widening base courses leading down to [Fig. 6.-The Mu-kún-tu-weap.] the esplanade below. The curtain-wall is decorated with a lavish display of vertical moldings, and the ridges, eaves and mitered angles are fretted with serrated cusps. This ornamentation is suggestive rather than precise, but it is none the less effective. It is repetitive, not symmetrical. But though exact symmetry is wanting, nature has here brought home to us the truth that symmetry is only one of an infinite range of devices by which beauty can be materialized.

And finer forms are in the quarry Than ever Angelo evoked.

Reverting to the twin temple across Little Zion Valley, its upper mass [U. S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY. THE TEMPLES AND TOWERS OF THE VIRGEN. ANNUAL REPORT 1881. PL. XX.] [U. S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY. THE TEMPLES AND TOWERS OF THE VIRGEN. ANNUAL REPORT 1881. PL. XX.] is a repetition of the one which crowns the western pile. It has the same elliptical contour, and a similar red tablet above. In its effect upon the imagination it is much the same. But from the point from which we first viewed them-and it is by far the best one accessible-it was too distant to be seen to the fullest advantage, and the western temple by its greater proximity overpowered its neighbor.

Nothing can exceed the wondrous beauty of Little Zion Valley which separates the two temples and their respective groups of towers. Nor are these the only sublime structures which look down into its depths, for similar ones are seen on either hand along its receding vista until a turn in the course carried the valley out of sight. It its proportions it is about equal to Yo Semite, but in the nobility and beauty of the sculptures there is no comparison. It is Hyperion to a satyr. No wonder the fierce Mormon zealot, who named it, was reminded of the Great Zion, on which his fervid thoughts were bent-“of houses not built with hands, eternal in the heavens.“

From these highly wrought groups in the center of the picture the eye escapes to the westward along a mass of cliffs and buttes covered with the same profuse decoration as the walls of the temples and of the Parunuweap. Their color is brilliant red. Much animation is imparted to this part of the scene by the wandering courses of the mural fronts which have little continuity and no definite trend. The Triassic terrace out of which they have been carved is cut into by broad amphitheatres and slashed in all directions by wide cañon valleys. The resulting escarpments stretch their courses in every direction, here fronting towards us, there averted; now receding behind a nearer mass and again emerging from an unseen alcove. Far to the westward, twenty miles away, is seen the last palisade lifting its imposing from behind a mass of towers and domes to an altitude of probably near 3,000 feet and with a grandeur which the distance cannot dispel. Beyond it the scenery changes almost instantly, for it passes at once into the Great Basin, which, to this region, is as another world.

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