Rocks of Ages (i) – Lascaux and the origins of sacred art

A few posts ago I mentioned American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and the intriguing tension in his writing between his professed agnosticism and his enthusiasm for masterpieces of sacred music such as Haydn’s Die Schöpfung. I thought of Gould and the title of his book Rocks of Ages again last week while visiting the Musée National de Préhistoire in the Dordogne, a region famous not only for its culinary delicacies such as foie gras and confit de canard (both of which I try to avoid out of respect for my arteries and reservations about the dubious ethics of animal force-feeding involved in their production) but also for its spectacular rock formations and caves, housing not only fantastic stalactites and stalagmites but also some of Europe’s most famous pre-historic art.

Lascaux, 'Hall of the Bulls'

Abbé Breuil, Lascaux 1940

Lascaux is the best-known of these sites; discovered in 1940, it was memorably termed the ‘Sistine Chapel of Prehistory’ by the French priest and prehistorian Abbé Henri Breuil (1877-1961) on account of its fabulous images of horses, bulls and bison dating from around 17000 B.C.E.  The cave has been closed to the public since 1963 in order to preserve the paintings (although I highly recommend a virtual tour at certainly easier and perhaps more worthwhile than visiting the facsimile cave ‘Lascaux II’ outside which I waited for over an hour in 36°C heat), but there are other sites such as Rouffignac where original art from the Middle Magdalenian period (around 13000 B.C.E.) can still be seen.

Rouffignac, 'Great ceiling'

Contemplating this grand plafond after a slightly scary train ride through the labyrinthine tunnels of Rouffignac, I was struck by the superior artistic quality of the depiction of the mammoths and other creatures (enough in itself to debunk notions of ‘progress in art’ – you can even find instances of the use of perspective here). The ability to translate sensory impressions into a meaningful Gestalt of great expressive power and depth is clearly something that has been deeply anchored in human culture for a very, very long time; indeed, it would seem hard to deny that the aesthetic dimension of human existence is something primary which cannot be reduced to any purely functional explanation. But just what possessed these artists to venture through dark, cold passageways in order to leave these imprints many hundreds of yards from the light of day? Their motivation was clearly strong – these are no casual scrawls, no graffiti along the lines of ‘CRO-MAGNON WOZ ‘ERE’ -, but what was the purpose of their endeavour, one that nobody other than initiates would even see? Surely more was involved than merely ‘depicting’ their world in a realistic fashion, as one of the most celebrated paintings of Lascaux makes apparent:

'Wounded bison', Lascaux

While the bison depicted here can in some respects be said to be ‘realist’, the same is clearly not true of the human representation of the figure on the left (which has four-toed bird’s feet in place of human hands) . It is striking that the artist clearly differentiates between ‘realistic’ and ‘symbolic’ styles, presumably employing both in the same image for some purpose unknown to us; although may interpretations have been proposed, it is hard to escape the conclusion that some form of ritual activity is associated with the desire to depict this scene, which is found in a narrow cleft in a particularly inaccessible part of the cave. As Princeton Professor of  Theology and Science Wentzel van Huyssteen has recently remarked in his 2004 Gifford lectures in the course of a discussion of the development of human ‘higher consciousness’ (i.e. the consciousness of being conscious that seems to separate us from other animals), there is strong support among contemporary theorists, including figures hostile to religious belief such as David Lewis-Williams, that the Upper Paleolithic art extant in France and Spain was linked to shamanism, suggesting that ‘art and “religion” were simultaneously born in this creative process’ (Alone in the world? Human uniqueness in science and theology (Rerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2006, p. 250). The sensory deprivation offered by the total silence and darkness of the caves which made them a gateway for the ancients to the spirit realm, van Huyssteen surmises, triggering visions and altered states of consciousness which were then ‘fixed’ by the visual images painted on the rocks. The walls of the caves – on which hand imprints are left in other important sites of the Dordogne such as Pech-Merle, as if to stress the importance of the act of touching them – effectively functioned in Paleolithic culture as a type of membrane between the visible and the invisible:

‘Touching the rock wall would then literally imply a touching of the veil that separated humans from the spiritual world […] It is clear, then, that in a variety of ways people touched, respected, painted, and ritually treated the walls of caves because of what they were and what they believed existed behind their surfaces. The cave walls were never just meaningless background: they were part of a highly charged metaphysical context, a context that provides for us today some of the first material evidence available for the origin of the first religion.’ (ibid., p. 252)

What is being shown in the ‘wounded bison’ image, he argues following Mircea Eliade and other scholars, is not simply a hunting accident, but a shaman being transformed into a bird-spirit at the moment of death (falling backward in a moment of hallucinatory ecstasy).

Whatever one may think of such an interpretation, the remarkable image offered by the bird-man and the wounded bison certainly provides evidence that our ancestors were already searching for a realm of meaning lying beyond immediate appearances. Indeed, the origins of this quest can be traced back further than the Upper Paleolithic era; even before homo sapiens emerged as the unique lasting form of hominid life, the Neanderthals already seem to have been performing burial rites – the evidence is overwhelming that it is the existential encounter with the frontier of death which is at the root of all subsequent human ritual.

From the perspective of faith, the implications are unmistakable: human beings since time immemorial have been created with a restless spirit open towards the transcendent. We have always been driven to seek answers to the riddles of life, death and experiences of altered consciousness (in hallucination, dream and sexual arousal, all of which may shape forms of artistic expression without however explaining the impulse to process these experiences through artistic creation). Art and religion are intertwined as primal expressions of human culture, yet the admission of spiritual and aesthetic dimensions to human life that cannot be accounted for by ‘hard’ materialist versions of evolutionary biology is one which many of the scientific authors whose works are on sale in the bookshops at the pre-historic sites in the Dordogne (Richard Dawkins being the most obvious example) are adamant in denying.

The debate between science and religion in the English-speaking world has certainly proved somewhat fractious in recent years due to an undignified shouting match between the ‘New Atheists’ (Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett) and equally intransigeant Biblical literalists. In France, however, there is a peculiar Gallic twist to this situation in the form of the additional factor of an official secular state ideology which has attempted – since the Revolution of 1789 and particularly following the separation of Church and State in 1905 – to bracket questions of faith entirely out of public life. This leads to a curious and incoherent silence as to the ultimate meaning of the cave paintings over which the French Government has custodial responsibility; the question of whether the desire to re-create the hunt scene depicted above in Lascaux should be viewed in proto-religious terms, as an attempt to deal with questions of the beyond in confronting death, is off-limits as far as the public square is concerned. Why? perhaps because serious engagement with the question would require us to countenance the idea that we are inherently ‘religious’ beings in the broadest sense, and that religion, being at the very root of humanity’s development, is maybe not simply a sociological expression of a ‘primitivism’ which we have now outgrown, as the Enlightenment would have us believe.

René Girard

One prominent French writer who has spent much of the last 40 years breaking the taboo concerning the expulsion of religion from French intellectual life – a phenomenon to which I will return in part two of this post – is René Girard (b. 1923). In his epochal Things hidden since the foundation of the world, he argues forcibly that the message of the pre-historic art of the Dordogne is that a religious dimension is integral to the very meaning of the term ‘culture’. No substantive discussion of the human phenomenon can occur if the issue of the origins of religion is systematically ignored. The question of the birth of art is not the only area of human activity implicated; leaving aside the question of whether the depiction of the hunt in the Lascaux Shaft image should be associated with shamanism, hunting should be seen as a rite in itself, linked to an intuitive encounter with transcendence through blood and sacrifice. To ignore the ritual element in this ancestral form of human behaviour is simply modern obfuscation that flies in the face of all the evidence:

‘The hunt has an invariably ritual character in primitive societies. Here again, most theorists implicitly or explicitly take the ritual aspect of hunting for a senseless embellishment and remain unperturbed by the fact that it constitutes the sole invariant among infinitely diverse techniques. Yet these too are related so closely and intimately to aspects of ritual that the religious element in hunting cannot be the mere intruder and interloper we always take it to be, even if we are careful not to lessen its role.
Specialists tell us that the human digestive tract has remained that of the mainly vegetarian omnivore, the kind of system that preceded ours in the course of evolution. Man is not naturally a carnivore; human hunting should not be thought of in terms of animal predation.
To understand what might have impelled human beings to set off in pursuit of the largest and most dangerous animals or to devise the strategies necessary for prehistoric hunting, it is necessary and sufficient to recognize that hunting, at first, was actively linked to sacrifice. […]
Even today the religious nature of hunting, the ritual distribution of roles, and the sacrificial character of the victim, suggest such an origin. Some prehistoric evidence, from the magnificent cave paintings in the Dordogne to the geometrical arrangements of bones and human and animal skulls found in some areas, could also be cited.’

(René Girard, Things hidden since the foundation of the world (Paris: Grasset, 1978, English translation London: Continuum, 1987), pp. 72-3.

Without necessarily agreeing with the extended theory of sacrifice proposed by Girard (a fascinating subject which would merit an entire series of posts in itself), prominent Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson makes much the same point as the French theorist in seeing the cave paintings as the first religious art, a form of embryonic worship. Ritual is integral to our identity as human beings, rooted in our direct personal relation to God which is the qualitative ‘ontological’ difference between ourselves and the rest of the animal realm. Secular anthropology may say otherwise, but the imagery of Rouffignac and Lascaux – art as a symbolic, ritual action – is startling evidence of that difference:

‘Who were Adam and Eve? They were the first hominid group who by ritual action were embodied before God, made personally available to him. Theology need not join debates about whether, for example, the cave paintings were attempts to control the hunt or were thanksgivings for the hunt, were “magic” or “religion.” The painters were human, as we may know simply from the fact of their ritual. And so they were presumably fallen, and therefore with their rites did indeed try to bind the contingency of the future, to do magic. But by the very act of giving visibility to wishes directed beyond themselves, they in fact gave up control and worshipped.’ (Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology vol. 2 (New York: OUP, 1999), pp. 60-61)


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