The Crystal Shrine Grotto, located on the grounds of Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee, was a must-see on my Memphis list. I first visited it years ago. It stayed with me. I really wanted to make sure my husband got to experience it while we were in town.
Free and located inside of a working cemetery, the Grotto is a bizarre confluence of roadside attraction, folk art, kitsch, and earnest religious fervor. It’s not quite like anything else. Perhaps the closest correlation would be to say it’s like a Christian version of Rock City? (Rock City is located in Chattanooga, TN. Google it to see some images for comparison.) The sign outside of the cemetery for the Grotto hints at the wonders awaiting visitors. It is indeed unique, but I’ll leave it to you to judge how naturalistic it is!
Concrete faux bois footbridge leading into the meditation gardens surrounding the grotto.
The gardens near the Grotto.
I find the many fairy-esque flourishes found throughout the cemetery grounds, such as these concrete toadstools and inaccessible chair, equally delightful and puzzling.
More concrete: my husband near “Abraham’s Oak”, a fake tree thing you can walk through. Or sit inside, on one of the built-in benches. Rising behind is the Grotto.
Side view of the Grotto. Here it looks like a face, with one eye (the lighted bit) looking at you, the other doing an odd melty wink.
The door leading into the Grotto. To my mind, its fantastical concrete construction resembles a termite mound more closely than it does a cave or a grotto.
Interior. You can see how it was constructed with all sorts of geodes, quartz, and other rocks glued to the interior to suggest stalactites and stalagmites. The overall effect is boggling.
More of the interior. There is dramatic colored lighting in spots, and some fake ferns.
Part of what makes the Crystal Shrine Grotto so… whatever you want to call it…is the art around the cave depicting the life of Christ.
Some scenes, like that of Jesus as a boy in the Temple (above) or this one of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, are fairly straightforward and traditional.
Others are a bit less so.
Some are downright puzzling. The scene depicting the Sermon on the Mount? It appears to possibly feature dueling Jesuses.
Is he Jesus?
Or is he?
Some of the sculptures were created contemporaneously to the Grotto’s opening in the late 1930s. Others were created quite a bit later, even up into the 1980s. They were done by several different artists working in several different mediums. Here is “Zaccheus in a Tree”, in wood.
One of my favorites is “Transfiguration”, done in wood, concrete, and lucite.
I suspect the artistic possibilities of lucite do not occur to most artists working on sculptures of Jesus.
That’s “The Assumption” behind my husband. We had the Grotto entirely to ourselves during our visit, giving us plenty of time to view everything and attempt to get pictures using a bunch of different settings on our cameras.
We found trying to capture clear images in the low light challenging. Using our flashes washed everything out and removed the moodiness of the place, but using our low light settings kept giving us weird blurry pictures.
But weird and blurry can be kind of good, too.
It would be easy to only see the potentially kitschy factors of this place, but it really was intended to serve as a space for contemplation. The guest book, located below this plaque, stands as a clear testament to the fact that many visitors are quite moved by the place. Although I couldn’t get a good picture of it, inside the Grotto there is also a large oil painting of the Good Samaritan. Underneath is a sign exhorting guests who find themselves moved by the Grotto to show their appreciation by doing good in the world. There is nowhere for donations. The place is guarded by a single security camera. There was only one spot that looked as if someone had pried one of the geodes off the wall, otherwise things appeared untouched by vandals. That made me very happy. Whether you’re enjoying the Grotto as a sincere expression of faith, as a fascinating collection of folk art, or as a roadside attraction from another era, it deserves to remain as is for all to enjoy.
We quite enjoyed our stop at the Grotto. If you’re in Memphis, I recommend! It’s free, open daily during cemetery hours, and fast to go through. I’d say we were there for a little over a half an hour. Be mindful of the fact that Memorial Park is a functioning cemetery. Remember that other visitors are there for funerals. To learn more about the history of how Crystal Shrine Grotto came into being, check out the cemetery’s website: http://memorialparkfuneral.reachlocal.net/who-we-are/history-and-staff.