Cave Painting in "Hall of the Bulls"
dating from about 17,000 BCE.
Arguably the greatest gallery of
prehistoric rock art.
Lascaux Cave Paintings (c.17,000 BCE)
With the advent of the Upper Paleolithic period (from 40,000 BCE), coinciding with the replacement of Neanderthal Man with "modern" versions of Homo sapiens, prehistoric art takes a massive leap forward, as exemplified by the cave painting of western Europe, a medium that reached its apogee in the caves of Lascaux (France) and Altamira (Spain).
This upsurge of artistic expression represents a revolutionary step in the intellectual development of mankind, and nowhere is it more evident than in the painted caves of Lascaux. Other sites with important prehistoric cave murals include: Chauvet, Pech-Merle, and Cosquer.
Discovered by teenagers Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencasin in September 1940, the Lascaux subterranean complex is situated close to the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne region of southwestern France. Containing some of the finest prehistoric polychrome cave paintings, dating from 17,000 BCE, the Lascaux caves were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Famous display chambers include The Great Hall of the Bulls, the Shaft of the Dead Man, the Lateral Passage, the Painted Gallery, the Chamber of Engravings, and the Chamber of Felines.
Environment and Conservation
Beset by continuing environmental problems, the Lascaux complex was enhanced in 1983 by the construction of "Lascaux II", an exact replica of the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery, a few hundred metres from the original caves. Organized by the French Ministry of Culture, reproductions of other Lascaux's parietal art can be viewed at the Centre of Prehistoric Art, located at Le Thot, France.
Layout of Cave Art
Most of the cave paintings at Lascaux are situated quite a distance away from the entrance, many of the secondary chambers are relatively remote. Given the lack of natural light, these artworks must have been created with the aid of candles, typically fuelled by animal fat.
Dates of Cave Paintings at Lascaux
The cave murals at Lascaux have been dated to the Solutrean-Magdalenian period (19,0008,000 BCE), with the earliest art dating from 17,000 BCE.
The Cave Art at Lascaux
What makes the prehistoric painting at Lascaux so different, is the huge scale of some of the animal pictures, and their exceptionally realistic portrayal. One of the bulls (aurochs) in the Cave of the Bulls is 17 feet (5.2 m) wide - the biggest animal image ever found in a Stone Age cave. In total, there are some 2,000 figurative pictures, including 900 animal forms, of which some 600 have been identified. In addition, there are many abstract images and symbols.
In the animal picture category, horses are most popular (360 images), followed by stags (90 images), cattle and bison (including the four huge, black aurochs in the Hall of the Bulls). Other species include mammoths, ibex, lions, bears, and wolves. The images include both hunted animals as well as predators; the latter usually appearing in the remotest parts of the cave. However, rather surprisingly there are no paintings of reindeer, the most commonly hunted animal of the period. Little if any flora is included in the pictures, thus giving the animal figures (typically painted in an alert and energetic stance) maximum impact. The vitality and power of the figures is enhanced by their bold outlines filled with areas of soft colour, as well as the use of Egyptian-style combined frontal and side views - animal heads are depicted in profile, but with both horns or antlers shown, as if painted from the front. (To see how the cave murals of Lascaux fit into the development of petroglyphs and murals during the Stone Age, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.)
The Paleolithic painters of Lascaux employed a variety of colours, including red, yellow, black, brown, and violet. All these pigments would have been obtained locally from readily available materials such as iron-rich clay ochre and manganese dioxide and charcoal. No brushes have been found at Lascaux, thus one presumes that the paint was applied with moss or fur pads, or crude crayons made from solid lumps of pigment. Reeds and hollowed horns might also have been used as paint-sprayers.
As is the case in most Upper Paleolithic painted caves, there are almost no images of human figures at Lascaux. Only one appears to exist - a prone stick-like figure, in the Shaft of the Dead Man.
The Lascaux caves also contain two basic categories of abstract art: simple shapes composed of dots or linework, and more elaborate drawings of quadrangles, triangles, circles and pentagons. The first category - according to one archeologist - may in fact be maps of the night sky, as the patterns seem to match those of various constellations. The second category has affinities with the cave art found at the Gabillou cave, also in the Dordogne.
The Great Hall of the Bulls
The most famous chamber at Lascaux is The Great Hall of the Bulls, featuring the famous four black aurochs (male cattle) including one huge figure. Another famous chamber is known as the Nave, which includes an image known as "The Crossed Bison", a fine example in the use of perspective.
For the oldest art, see: Venus
of Tan-Tan - Venus of Berekhat
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE ART