- Arts and Design
Lascaux Cave Paintings
Lascaux Cave Paintings are Prehistoric
The Lascaux caves are located in France, near the village of Montignac in the Vezere Valley. They became famous when numerous Paleolithic cave paintings were discovered adorning their walls. These works of art, realistic portrayals of a variety of large animals, are estimated to be as much as 20,000 years old. The site, together with a number of other caves, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is known as Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vezere Valley.
The paintings had been preserved for all this time, protected from the outside by the natural sealing of the caves. Once discovered in 1940, though, they began to deteriorate as a result of the moisture, carbon dioxide, and other environmental changes resulting from air circulation and numerous visitors to the caves. So, a replica has been constructed for visitors, and only qualified researchers are given limited access to the actual site.
Seems like a good plan, since it allows the public the chance to view replicas with lots of historically accurate context, not just pictures on the wall of a museum or some "artist's impression" of what the original site looked like. And hopefully they will succeed in preserving the originals, which offer a tangible link to the very early history of humankind.
So What are these Paintings All About?
The caves at Lascaux and their amazing artworks were discovered in 1940 by some teenagers. To their surprise, the cave paintings they discovered there are prehistoric! Since that time scientists have been amazed by what is contained there - a most astonishing view of the shadowy, powerful animal world of the Old Stone Age. The paintings cover the walls of several caverns, known today by such names as the Great Hall of the Bulls, the Chamber of Felines, the Shaft of the Dead Man, and the Painted Gallery.
On the walls are found depictions of bison, aurochs (an extinct type of wild ox), horses, deer, and felines, all animals known to have existed in Paleolithic times, as well as one single man. The one image of a man is of a dead man together with a bison and what appears to be a rhinoceros. It seems that the man has lost a fight with the bison, and is lying on the ground with a broken spear beside him.
Great Book on the topic
Norbert Aujoulat's book on the Lascaux cave paintings is the next best thing to going there yourself, which you can't do except to the replica. Aujoulat is one of the few scientists who has actually been allowed into the caves in recent times, and so this incredible book is a wonderful and complete account of the artworks to be found there. As well as Aujoulat's insights into the nature of the beasts depicted and how these artists of long ago achieved their work, the reader is rewarded with 262 color illustrations of the most important images from the caves.
The author directed the research on the Lascaux cave for ten years. This magnificent book contains beautiful full-color photography of all parts of the cave.
The cave paintings at Lascaux are the product of prehistoric human beings who were able to capture the essence of the animals that inhabited their world. They have obvious artistic merit, with the use of color, the contours of the cave walls included in the scenes to add three dimensional realism, and the remarkable compositions that portray vividly the experience of these large animals in motion. Beyond that, though, they are the relics of a culture long gone, one that we never imagined we could know intimately. Such amazing artworks bring these beings, barely human, into our own life experience in a way that evokes a deep emotional and spiritual response, at least in me!
While some of the animals appear at first glance distorted, it has been recognized that horses in their winter coats take on the short-legged proportions of those found here.
By Ralph Morse
Many of the images show an understanding of perspective. In one painting a bison overlaps another, and the three dimensional effect is heightened by the location of the painting in a place where the wall curves outward on either side. There is also a "unicorn," actually a bull drawn in profile so that the two horns appear almost as one, like the horn of the mythical unicorn.
Interpretation of the pictures has varied, especially since there are so many paintings. Some appear no more than the fun of adolescent boys putting their handprints on the wall, perhaps in an effort to make themselves part of the hunt for the animals depicted there. Many have suggested a religious purpose, possibly a form of shamanism (especially since the dead man has a bird-like head and has a stick with a bird head on it beside him), or some kind of animism in which the spirits of the animals killed in the hunt were given a resting place through the drawings. Or, our ancestors may have drawn pictures of animals hoping for a successful hunt.
Whatever their purpose though, the magnificence of the artwork is undeniable and a wonderful display of human creativity from such primitive times.
Fascinating group of animals
Photo by Sisse Brimberg
See the size of these paintings!
Virtual tour of Lascaux
Have you visited or would you like to visit Lascaux? - Now you've been on the virtual tour, how about the real (well, replica) thing?
Have you visited the Lascaux site?
Mario Ruspoli was hired by the French Ministry of Culture to photograph and film the Lascaux cave paintings and engravings as a historical record of the site. But this book is more than just a visual anthology, it is a journey into the lives of those primitive human beings who created these magnificent works of art.
Another great book!
More about these Paintings
© 2009 Jennifer P Tanabe