Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Stone Canvas (Part 1)

 By Bethany Youngblood

Chauvet Cave

Mention “cave art”, and you’ve introduced the image of charcoal scrawls and odd looking stick-men into your listener’s head. This realm of primitive man cannot possibly hold any of the beauty or finesse we associate with the term ‘art’, can it? What is more, even if the doodles could be recognized as man or beast, would they have any commonality with our art today? The answer is a resounding yes! The realm of ancient artwork is a vast landscape rich in a variety of styles and purposes. To serve as an introduction to this beautiful chapter of ancient man we want to take you on a little art tour. We will start by focusing in on that first misconception at the beginning of this paragraph: cave art.

Canvas and Terms

Cave art is commonly defined as the work of Paleolithic man as represented by drawings and paintings on the walls of caves. (The term "Paleolithic" refers to an evolutionary stage of human development, characterized by creation and use of stone tools.[1] Paleolithic man was supposed to be a hunter-gatherer, but as we so often see, ancient man was not limited to this evolutionary definition.) So first off, why were caves the chosen canvas for our ancient artists?

It has been hammered into our heads that caves were the first dwelling places of primitive man. However, the Bible clearly states another version of history in Genesis 4:17
 “ And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he built a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son—Enoch.” (NKJV) 
From the very beginning we had the capability as created, intelligent beings to craft homes for ourselves. Caves then fall under the category of temporary dwellings, or religious sanctuaries. Most experts lean towards the latter and that could be a leading reason for the cave art. However, ancient man may have created the art for social or even personal expression as well, just like any artist today. We will explore some specific examples later

There are three areas to cave-art:

  1. Paintings – Simple outlines (made of charcoal or mineral pigment) with no color fill, or ‘true paintings’ complete with outlines, color, and shading.
  2. Engravings – Shallow lines usually cut into soft limestone. They are sometimes superimposed on paintings and other times just the rough draft of a painting.
  3. Bas-Reliefs – Made of soft, pliable clay attached to the cave walls or the paintings themselves[2]

Just those brief definitions should clue you in that these artists were not dolts experimenting with finger-paint. They were fully-formed people like you and me, gifted by God with creative spirits and an appreciation for beauty.

Content Commonalities

Before we look at the paintings themselves some global commonalities should be noted. Around the world, spanning oceans, cultures, and languages, what were all the ancient men painting? Below is a breakdown of four main categories of commonalities, but many subcategories could be drawn from them.

1.     People – Representations of man in cave-art can be as simple as a hand-print  or as elaborate as a stylized ruler in costume. You will find that man does not often take the foreground in ancient artwork. Unless for hunting scenes, religious purposes, or sensual purposes.

2.     Venuses – Small clay statues, figurines, and paintings crafted in a female form. Sensuality appears to be their main purpose, as their features are always exaggerated in rather inappropriate ways.

3.     Animals – Prey animals like deer, bison, horses, and mammoth are the most common among cave art. They can star in hunting scenes or as individuals. Predators are rarer. What’s really exciting is some of the animals painted on the walls are extinct. There are even some dinosaurs to be seen!

4.     Geometric Signs – These are abstract, non-figurative shapes including; dots, zig-zags, triangles, spirals, and crosshatches. The Bradshaw Foundation has identified 26 symbols that appear repeatedly around the world and suggest the possibility that symbolic communication was a global happening. Find out more at the Bradshaw Foundation.

What's behind the art?

Was the purpose behind the majority of cave art religious ceremony or personal expression? The reality is, we cannot say for sure on an individual basis. As anyone who paints can tell you, only the artist really knows why he or she painted something. A majority tends to lean towards religious expression[3]. One writer has this to say:

“In my view — which I share with quite a number of predecessors — there is little doubt that these complex representations are deeply rooted in religious beliefs. The small population of humans descended from the occupants of the ark had a clear system of beliefs from the beginning since their ancestor Noah “walked with God” (Genesis 6: 9). But as they spread out and lost contact with each other, their religious inheritance may well have started to dilute, with priority given to more direct and pressing issues, like survival by multiplication, which was still a divine commandment: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1).” – Author Unknown[4]

This could help explain the many Venus figurines and fertility images across the globe. The earth itself would eventually come to be seen as the greatest ‘mother’ in nature. And painting images of prey or predators in caves (mother-nature’s metaphorical womb) could have been the ritual before a hunt to assure success. Religious devolution continues from these common roots and takes form in the numerous religions we see today. 

What is painted on ancient cave walls, if for religious purposes, is nothing new in a world that constantly attempts to forget the reality of God and replace Him with a more convenient imitation.

"Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures." (Romans 1:22-23)

Watch for next week's post where we will take you on a Grand Tour of some of the most spectacular ancient cave art in the world! 

[1] “An Overview of the Paleolithic.”
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid

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